By Ridge Mahoney
As regards Robbie Rogers and his future as a soccer player, or not, can we all just give it a rest?
He trained with the Galaxy Tuesday. So what? Less than three months after announcing his retirement and sexual preference in one fell swoop, he was on the field! Big deal.
For all we know, he still feels that playing a pro sport as an openly gay athlete is “impossible,” and for the American soccer press to beat the drums, indirectly or not, for him to resume is playing career now if not sooner is shameful.
And make no mistake, that’s what’s going on. In fact, the drums are beating so loud all manner of fans and pundits are decrying the MLS rules by which his rights are held by Chicago, even though as a Southern California native he’d love to play for the Galaxy, although Seattle coach Sigi Schmid has acknowledged he’s a good player, and Fire head coach Frank Klopas says the same thing and would certainly like him on his team, and the rules are so stupid that Herculez Gomez might have to jump through hoops if he came back to MLS because his rights are held by Sporting Kansas City, the last MLS team to employ him.
Whew! That’s a lot to digest, but let’s take on this task in stages. First, let’s set the record straight: all those references to NBA veteran Jason Collins being the first male athlete to come out during his pro career are correct, and nobody slighted Rogers by saying so.
Veteran Collins is a free agent and trying to find another team, so he’s as active now as he was Monday when a long story about his acknowledgement of being gay appeared in Sports Illustrated. Rogers went inactive when he retired, and officially he’s just as retired now as he was in February.
So Collins is the first, even though at 34 his chances of getting another pro gig are slim. Rogers, 25, can be the second if he resumes his career but he can never be the first, so all of you out there in Please-Be-Nice-to-Soccer Land, get over it.
The second issue to be discussed is Rogers actually resuming his career, which if you read all the adoring, breathless coverage since he jogged onto the field with the Galaxy is a fait accompli. Sure, the press and many fans would love to have Rogers back on the field in an MLS jersey. But what’s great for MLS and the politically correct crowd may not be great for Rogers, who twice left America to try the foreign market and failed both times.
He’s already become a poster child for the bashing of MLS player acquisition procedures. While he’s surely heartened by the outpouring of support he’s received since making his announcement, he shouldn’t feel pressured to resume his career so a lot of us can feel better about ourselves and the progress our society is making toward acceptance of homosexuals.
He’ll be the target of protests. The Supreme Court sessions over gay marriage have roiled emotions on many related topics, and he would see, and hear, vitriol from both sides. He’ll be a lightning rod for abuse as well as tolerance.
Maybe he left the game in the first place because he wanted to be himself instead of a symbol, a pioneer, a cause. He picked his identity over soccer. He could have kept his mouth shut and endured his internal conflicts to keep playing.
By coming out and retiring, he’s put himself squarely in the cross-hairs of his own persona. What to do next?
If he’s happier as a gay ex-player than he was as a closeted gay player, that’s the path he should take. Conversely, if he gauges that the time is right and he’s the right person to step into the dual spotlight as gay man and professional soccer player, that’s what he should do. But he should ignore all but those closest to him as he ponders his decision. He won’t be letting us down if he stays retired. He doesn't need to be the Jackie Robinson of gay pro athletes.
If he truly wants to resume playing, he will, and he might just get his preference in that regard as well. Or he might not. Two weeks before Rogers’ announcement, Chicago acquired his rights in a trade with the Crew. Coincidence or not, that’s the current status.
Didn’t another former Crew player, Brian McBride, get his way when he came back to MLS? Yes, there was a lot of posturing and stalling and huffing and puffing, but in the end, he finished his career with the Fire even though under MLS rules Toronto FC, which was atop the allocation order at the time, held his rights, and took its sweet time before trading him.
It’s not always the case that a pro player gets to play where he wants, even a megastar such as Landon Donovan. He may have gamed the system by negotiating a deal that took him away from San Jose and MLS to Bayer Leverkusen, only to return a few months later to the Los Angeles Galaxy, but when he first arrived in MLS, he went to San Jose, and in San Jose he stayed.
Quakes coach Frank Yallop adamantly refused to trade him, and while Donovan often zipped out of the locker room after home games and headed straight to Southern California for a quick visit, he played four seasons for the Quakes and helped them win a pair of titles. It’s hard to make a case that his fabulous career suffered because the team he started out with wasn’t his first choice.
Rogers isn’t a precocious 19-year-old frustrated by two years languishing in a German reserve team. Yet neither is he a stone-cold superstar; admiration for his bold stand clouds the fact during his stints in MLS and the national team his talented game often lacked tenacity or consistency. Once a teammate of Michael Bradley at Heerenveen, he lasted about nine months in Holland, and many U.S. players have carved out far more successful careers in England than he did.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper Rogers acknowledged a comeback is a possibility but for a while he’ll be enjoying time with friends and family, surfing, and thinking about life. Coming out was tough enough. Coming back can wait.
“Chill out,” is what he said. So should we all.