Renewed focus on soccer is helping Robbie Rogers excel in Los Angeles
CARSON, Calif. -- From a distance, Robbie Rogers wears the mantle of role model with enviable ease. After coming out in 2013, Rogers remains the only active gay male athlete in North American team sports; his book "Coming Out To Play" has proven to be inspirational to readers, regardless of their sexual orientation.
But a closer vantage point reveals that for Rogers, wearing the role model cloak has been accompanied by periods of discomfort and distraction from his primary vocation, that of being a professional soccer player for the L.A. Galaxy. This was especially true after he came out of retirement and joined the Galaxy in May 2013.
"My first year back, it was really difficult for me," he said at Tuesday's annual MLS media day. "I felt like it was a little bit of a burden. I would consciously think of myself as a gay athlete. ... I felt like every day after training I had to give an interview where it was like, 'Oh, you're gay, how does that feel?' I was like, 'I don't know, but I'm tired from training.' It got to the point where it was a bit much."
So heading into the 2014 season, Rogers made a decision. He would scale back his media commitments and focus on being a soccer player.
"I didn't consciously think of myself as a gay athlete," he said. "I just thought of myself as Robbie Rogers."
That isn't to say he stopped being a role model. Rather, he learned it was a jacket that he could take on or off depending on the situation. It ceased being a 24/7 responsibility.
The improvement in Rogers' play was dramatic. After spending the bulk of his career as a wide midfielder, the right-footed Rogers established himself as a left-back. In a year that saw the Galaxy's back line ravaged by injury, his steady play and ability to join the attack proved to be a critical development in the club winning its record fifth MLS Cup. Along the way, Rogers learned to enjoy the process in each of his roles.
"I love being an inspiration to people," he said. "I love hearing from people that, 'My son was going to kill himself and now he's living because he read your book.' I feel extremely blessed to be used in that way. It wasn't my intention.
"But this year , I've just enjoyed going back to soccer and part of a team that had so much adversity and so much going on. Obviously, with Landon [Donovan's] last season and the amount of babies that [guys on the team] had. We had so much going on, and I could just be myself and be part of a team."
The past year hasn't been completely devoid of disappointment, however. When Rogers came out, he hoped more closeted athletes -- especially in MLS -- would follow his lead. It has yet to happen, but any feelings of disappointment or isolation quickly evaporate as he thinks back on his own experience.
"It reminds me of where I was a few years ago and how hard it was for me, and the culture and the landscape that every day when I went in the locker room and I would hear the most homophobic and ridiculous things," he said.
Rogers' relationship with U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann is another sore spot. The relationship between the two dates back to when Rogers was 12 years old. Klinsmann used to drive Rogers to Galaxy training and spoke to Rogers' mother about whether her son should attend the residency program for the U.S. U-17 national team. Klinsmann even wrote a letter to Leeds United in order to help Rogers acquire a work permit to play in England.
Rogers recalled that when he came out, he did so to a small group of family and friends. He braced himself for the worst, and "tried to create this hard shell around myself." The positive response from friends and even the wider U.S. soccer community was nearly universal. But Rogers received no reply from Klinsmann.
As Rogers relates this story, he seems mostly puzzled at his onetime mentor's lack of communication. But there also appears to be a fear of not knowing how Klinsmann feels.
"I think [Klinsmann] and I need to have that conversation, a life conversation, if he's interested," he said. "I think that's more important to me than playing with the national team."
Rogers the advocate soon re-emerges, railing against the decision by FIFA to hold the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar, two countries with a history of hostility toward the LGBT community.
"I don't think boycotting something is the way to go," he said. "I've learned from my experience that being present and being in a locker room is what really teaches people and what creates an environment that is sensitive and aware of what's really going on. So I think people need to start talking about it now."
So long as Rogers is around, they undoubtedly will.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.