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28 February 2014

Robbie Rogers

Dear World, With Asterisks

In person, I’m finding Robbie Rogers is impossible to look at. This is either because the sun’s hovering directly behind his head; or, more favorably, he just has that kind of face. We’re sitting on Rogers’ front porch in the hills overlooking a golden L.A. horizon, and he’s embodying something like the lovechild of James Bond and One Direction. (If that mental image gave you tingles just now, that’s not my problem and also you’re welcome because it is ACCURATE.)

“…Just jeans and a T-shirt, and like, some canvas shoes.”

Rogers is discussing his personal style just as my eyes avert from his and land on his crisp, brand new navy Vans. To my horror I’m wearing identical navy Vans, but mine are cracked and faded and stained from when somebody dropped a full slice of artichoke pizza on them. Now every dog I encounter licks them. There’s a metaphor here somewhere.

 

Call to Adventure

Rogers, 26, grew up in Southern California naturally gifted at soccer in the same way you or I are naturally gifted at not being gifted at soccer. A two-time High School All-American, an NCAA Champion (at University of Maryland), a professional league player at 19 (first for the Dutch, then for Major League Soccer, then Leeds United), his trajectory appeared unstoppable. But despite how well he succeeded at every level of competition, he faced the same crippling self-hatred and doubt that many gay people face early on. “There were a lot of moments where I was just miserable when I should’ve been happy. ‘Guess I’ll go play professional soccer in England!’ but I’m still miserable. Being closeted was affecting the way I played; it was affecting my relationships. It just really destroys you—your mental health and your confidence. I was just like, ‘I’m over this.’”

 

Challenges and Temptations

“I honestly didn’t think about that,” Rogers protests when I suggest he is an especially marketable gay role model. (An unspoken reality of American trailblazing is the ease with which particularly attractive people find support, and of course, lucrative endorsement deals.) “I didn’t have any intentions like that.” With a fateful tweet last February that read simply “Just getting some sh*t off my chest,” Rogers began the process of informing the world that he is gay. “For me it was just for my sanity, for my happiness.”

 

Abyss

Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl called the announcement “brave” and Rogers received an outpouring of support from a sports world that seemed eager to move past this issue already. (In its previous season, MLS suspended six players for homophobic slurs.) Still, Rogers was an anomaly. As Wahl said in the same story, “As much as times have changed in society, coming out publicly is still extremely rare in the world of team sports, especially for current players.” Only now does Rogers realize the magnitude of what he’d done, and also the irony that in spreading public awareness about his sexuality, he’s helping to shape a world in which future Robbie Rogerses won’t be possible. “It won’t be ‘I’m a gay soccer player.’ It will just be ‘I’m a soccer player.’”

 

Transformation

When I point out that his Twitter feed used to be dirtier (and funnier) prior to February—like the time he jokingly used the word “ghetto” in a tweet and MLS apologized for it—and suggest that his spotlight is perhaps its own kind of closet, Rogers looks at the ground and sighs. “Yeah, it is. It kind of sucks.” There’s definitely a learning curve in becoming an all-encompassing role model, but Rogers doesn’t seem too interested in that level of perfection. “Now I don’t even really tweet because if you say anything, people object. You post a picture of your dog and people respond, ‘You shouldn’t be with your dog, you should be training.’ And it’s like, are you fucking kidding me?”

 

Atonement

The asterisk beside Rogers’ initial coming out was the accompanying announcement that he’d also be “stepping away” from soccer altogether. He was anxious about the worst-case scenario reactions that he’d spent a lifetime fearing. “I thought seriously that I was done…I didn’t think I was going to go back,” he says, explaining the psychological bargaining one does in the face of something terrifying. But after a few months of reflection (and not a little pressure from disappointed fans and supporters) Rogers decided to return to California and play for the L.A. Galaxy, making him officially the first openly gay male athlete to be active in one of the five main American sports. (Basketball players Jason Collins and John Amaechi, baseball player Billy Bean, and football player Esera Tuaolo all came out only after they’d retired.) “Going back to soccer for me was really tough and really scary, to go back into that environment that really scarred me when
I was younger. But I wanted to do it; I wanted to go back. I love soccer. And to help kids by just going back and playing soccer? Just to set a good example without really having to say too much.”

 

Return

With the diminishment of the self-loathing that fuels many closeted athletes to work hard, Rogers is now seeking out new sources of pressure. There’s his fashion line Halsey. There’s Beyond “it,” his nonprofit organization to destigmatize labels. There’s his upcoming memoir, his sought-after commentary on gay representation in the upcoming Sochi Olympics, his first-ever romantic relationship (with TV producer Greg Berlanti), and the two TV pilots he’s working on. But, Rogers says, he’s mainly fueled by a need to “prove to people I’m still a good soccer player. But also to prove that I’m not just an athlete. There’s more to me than meets the eye.” I attempt to look at his face again, but see only blinding sunlight and the city of Los Angeles spanning vastly behind his shoulders. “I know that sounds cheesy.”

Written by Price Peterson

Photographed by Carlos Serrao