At some point in the middle of his French class on Friday, David Testo’s inbox became one of the best possible indicators that something very significant was happening in the world of soccer.
Testo doesn’t know Robbie Rogers. He’s never met him. And he had to file a quick online search to figure out exactly what was happening, but he certainly didn’t need to know all the details. Testo understood immediately the stakes of Rogers’ online revelation, and what it might mean for a generation of athletes who enthusiastically rallied around Rogers in the hours after he announced he was gay.
“For him, it’s probably such a personal relief, but he has no idea what he’s done for the future,” said Testo, the former MLS and NASL midfielder who came out in November 2011. “I wrote him an e-mail and told him, ‘You have no idea how much you’re going to change the situation.’”
Rogers tweeted out a link to his personal blog with the news on Friday morning, with a disclaimer that felt like he was mislabeling a tank of nitroglycerine. “Just getting some [expletive] off my chest,” as Rogers put it, is something a person says when they’re complaining about a co-worker, or telling their roommate there’s a problem with so many dishes in the sink. What Rogers laid bare on Friday morning undoubtedly bore a much heavier burden on the former Crew midfielder, who added that he’s walking away from the game at just 25 years old.
“I always thought I could hide this secret,” Rogers wrote. “Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined. … I will always be thankful for my career. I will remember Beijing, the MLS Cup, and most of all my teammates. I will never forget the friends I have made along the way and the friends that supported me once they knew my secret.”
What followed was an outpouring of online support in the United States and in Europe, where Rogers has tried to make it with both Leeds United and Stevenage since 2011. Former Crew teammates, US national team friends, journalists, fans and strangers all wished him well on Twitter. Rogers, who was largely beloved by the fans in Columbus and is widely respected among those who have played with him, suddenly became the face of the modern day gay athlete: young and successful, but still undoubtedly tormented.
“Secrets can cause so much internal damage,” he wrote. “Try explaining to your loved ones after 25 years you are gay. Try convincing yourself that your creator has the most wonderful purpose for you even though you were taught differently.”
Columbus Dispatch reporter Shawn Mitchell spoke with Rogers’ former Crew teammate Andy Iro on Friday, shining some light into the decision to go public with a personal blog entry written after midnight. According to Iro, Rogers, who was released by Leeds last summer after just four appearances, held onto the secret until very recently, informed just a small group of people about his sexuality, and came out only after he had decided to step away from the game.
“He knew he couldn’t be the man he wanted to be when he had to hide something so integral to his life,” Iro told the Dispatch. “I think with football, with the locker room and the banter that goes around, I don’t think it made him uncomfortable, but he didn’t want to continue a lie.”
There could be any number of reasons Rogers never caught on in England, but his body certainly didn’t do him any favors. After two months pining for his debut with Leeds and just 11 minutes into his first start with the club, he suffered an ankle injury that ended his season. Leeds tanked from there, losing six of their last 10, and Rogers ended up with Stevenage on a fruitless loan that ended in January.
Testo, for one, speculated that the emotional strain of Rogers’ personal life could very well have had an effect on his physical health.
“Every day of your life is very stressful,” Testo said. “Even if you build an inner circle of people who know – a couple of teammates or friends – you still never really get to feel that release of just being. That takes a toll over years and years. You can’t explore the most powerful part of who you are. The stress of that affects your play and the health of your body.”
There aren’t many examples to draw from in Rogers’ case, simply because so few male athletes of his caliber have come out during a prime moment in their careers. Testo turned down MLS contracts to stay in a safe community in Montreal, but he came out publicly only after he was cut from the NASL Impact after the 2011 season. Olympic diver Greg Louganis and former NBA big man John Amaechi, perhaps the two best-known gay male athletes to American sports fans, came out in much-publicized memoirs released after their careers were over.
The widely recognized example thrown around England after Rogers’ announcement is that of ill-fated soccer player Justin Fashanu, who came out in 1990 after starring for Norwich City earlier in his career. He committed suicide eight years later after he was allegedly involved in the sexual assault of a 17-year-old boy.
No such baggage follows Rogers, who broke into MLS at 20 years old and the US national team two years later. He was a regular face for the Americans in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup and was invited to camp just prior to the trip to South Africa, but was one of the last cuts by former head coach Bob Bradley.
His last US cap to date came in a friendly vs. Slovenia in November 2011, a replacement for Michael Bradley in the waning seconds of the US team’s 3-2 win. He has 18 caps to his name, and although he’s never peaked higher than that 2010 World Cup camp invite, his equalizing goal in a 2011 friendly against Mexico proved what most US players already knew for years: Robbie Rogers can play, and that’s all that matters.
“Had we known that he was gay or had he come out then, there wouldn’t have been a problem whatsoever,” said former US defender Jimmy Conrad, who roomed with Rogers on the road during a 2009 World Cup qualifier in Honduras. “Robbie is a well-respected person. If anyone did say anything, especially on the other team, I think the older guys on the team would have nipped that in the bud pretty quickly.”
Rogers’ blog post leaves his future from here in a slightly ambiguous place. Although he writes that “it’s time to discover myself away from football,” it’s unclear if that’s a temporary move or possibly a permanent one. Stunningly, his potential retirement became the talk of social media as much as the sexuality revelation itself on Friday, with fans pleading for him to stay on and play and lamenting what could be the loss of a talented young player.
Iro, meanwhile, told the Post-Dispatch that while he expects Rogers to be back in step should he ever return, it doesn’t appear likely.
“He’s ready to move on to other things,” Iro told the paper. “Once he’s retired, then he’s out of the picture for most people. He seems fairly adamant that he wanted to be done with football.”
Added Testo: “He probably used soccer the way I did – as a release. You can go there and forget about your life, whether you’re gay or not, whether or not people accept you. You can just play. Once you come out and you explore who you are, you don’t need that as much anymore. You can just live your everyday life.”
The Chicago Fire hold Rogers’ rights should he ever return to MLS, thanks to a trade earlier this month that Rogers himself mocked with some disdain on Twitter: “Just read my 'rights' were traded to Chicago. ... Love how the MLS works, pretty funny.”
While the Crew held players like former Rogers teammates Eddie Gaven and Chad Marshall back from media requests on Friday, they did release a statement: “Robbie Rogers was a valuable member of the Columbus Crew and a dedicated community ambassador during his time with the club. The organization wishes him every success in his future pursuits.”
The Fire stepped in, too, with these words in a statement from head coach Frank Klopas: “Yesterday, I thought he was a very good player and I still think that today. Should Robbie want to return to the game, we would still be open to him being part of the Fire.”
So what comes next? That’s up to Rogers, who traditionally never has been shy with media but could very well stray from the glare for a while, especially while still in England. But there appears to be little argument that the soccer community that supported him before his early morning revelation will still be there when the sun comes up again tomorrow in London.
“I can only hope that this will have a snowball effect on things to come,” Testo said. “He’s a big name and a big player. It’s a stepping stone in this movement toward the point where this isn’t a big deal at all anymore.”