Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Robbie Rogers comes out, then "retires" on his own terms

On his website on Friday, former USMNT forward Robbie Rogers both came out and “stepped away” from football.  The 25 year-old, scorer of the first goal in Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as US coach, last played on New Year’s Day for English League One side Stevenage.

He was immediately greeted with a swarm of support emanating from all corners of the football world.  Former teammates, casual observers and even loudmouths in Southern France – anyone who appreciates a triad of courage, honesty and diversity – issued messages of support. 

The response has been so overwhelmingly positive from administrators, coaches and players that it can be thought of as a high-point for sport in the fight against homophobia.  During the past few years, fans have witnessed a number of athletes and executives publicly stand up to bigotry directed at them because of their sexual orientation*.

The second part of Rogers’ blog post regarded his decision to walk away from the sport to which he has devoted so much of his life.  Much conversation on the topic followed Rogers’ statement, including Clark Carlisle, the chief of England’s Professional Footballer’s Association, congratulating Rogers and hoping the player’s de facto retirement wasn’t linked to his decision to come out.
Let’s get one thing straight: the two are inextricably linked, but perhaps not for the reasons to which one might immediately leap.  

I doubt highly Rogers has retired because he fears victimization.  From speaking with gay friends, coming out takes an awareness that you could provoke a reaction – either positive or negative – and the courage to make the choice anyway.  For a public figure, the reaction is amplified and therefore the strength of character must also be.  If it was ever in doubt at all, Friday proved that Robbie Rogers has guts. 

This suggests the (secondary) retirement decision wasn’t driven by fear at all.  He can’t not be aware of the bigotry that exists in some corners of sport and he showed he was a man strong enough to deal with those challenges.  If Robbie Rogers has the stones to come out to his “loved ones” after 25 years, then he has the stones to face the prejudiced judgment of complete strangers.

It seems more plausible that Rogers’ retirement might give him space enough to adjust to an unfamiliar new role.  Deliberate or unintentional, Robbie Rogers is now one of the most prominent “out” athletes in the United States and ultimately more newsworthy than he was a week ago.  Coming to grips with this will probably take time: it behoves fans and media outlets to allow him this basic civility.

*For a magnificent insight into a gay professional footballer’s fight, try this read on former Montreal Impact star David Testo by Leander Schaerlackens on SBNation.

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