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Friday, June 7, 2013

Coming out: Robbie Rogers, Stephen Bickford and a new future for gay athletes

Posted by on Fri, Jun 7, 2013 at 10:19 AM

Robbie Rogers (right) battles the RailHawks Floyd Franks.

When Robbie Rogers took the field against the Carolina RailHawks last week, he expected to be booed. But he wanted to be booed like any other opposing player.

By the time Rogers entered the game, it was the 63rd minute and his team was behind 2-0. His entrance into the game was barely noticed.

And that was probably as it should have been.

The 26-year-old Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder is not new to the professional soccer world, and he’s even made 18 appearances for the national team. However, after a disappointing stint in Europe ended with his decision to retire, his life changed. He came out as gay, and the expressions of support were overwhelming. He signed with the Galaxy late last month.

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that partisans of different sports are clamoring to claim the first openly gay player. While the NBA’s Jason Collins was heralded as the first active player to come out, he is presently without a contract for next season. Rogers, many say, is the first openly gay player to take the field in a major sport. Skeptics might ask if soccer is really a “major” sport. Around the world it certainly is, and even in the United States, it must be said that Rogers played his first game as an avowed gay man in front of nearly 25,000 fans and an ESPN2 television audience.

He was received well at home, and Wednesday’s game against the Carolina RailHawks marked his first away game. But there was no special attention paid to him.

Jarrett Campbell, head of Triangle Soccer Fanatics, whose colorful section beats drums and sets off fireworks in support of the RailHawks at games, says he felt a lot of empathy for Rogers, but his organization decided against anything that could be viewed as a political stance.

A record crowd of more than 8,000 turned out for the game. Above, members of the Triangle Soccer Fanatics.
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson
  • A record crowd of more than 8,000 turned out for the game. Above, members of the Triangle Soccer Fanatics.

“As a supporters group, we always do displays of banners and things like that, and there was some talk amongst the group about whether we should do something special,” Campbell says. “There were some suggestions to maybe add a rainbow flag, but when you run an organization whose charter is to support the RailHawks, talking about supporting a player on the other team is always an interesting conversation.

“My suggestion to the group was, should he come in the game, give a polite applause,” he adds, “and then hate on him for the rest of the game just like he’s any other player.”

Rogers’ presence on the field was immensely important to one spectator in particular.

“I think Robbie coming out is absolutely groundbreaking, and the day he came out was one of the best days of my life because the American soccer community embraced him wholeheartedly,” Stephen Bickford says. “I didn’t expect anything like that to happen for another 10 to 15 years.”

Bickford, who cuts a striking figure in black clothes, a Mohawk and mirrored sunglasses, invited this reporter to sit down at the game and discuss the significance of Rogers’ coming out.

He was a forward for UNC-Chapel Hill in 2005 and 2006 before transferring to University of Denver. In August of last year, Bickford published an article online about his own experience with being a closeted, gay collegiate soccer player. In it, he described the toxic combination of social isolation, depression and the pressure of athletic expectations that he faced. Bickford was heartened by the support that Rogers received.

“Seeing how well the American soccer community said, ‘Hey, why are you retiring? You know, that’s cool that you’re gay. We love you as a person and as a player, and we want you playing.’

“It was amazing,” Bickford adds.

Stephen Bickford, watching the Galaxy play the RailHawks

Bickford also says that it’s not only the fans’ support that is so encouraging, but also the support of MLS and fellow players.

“The locker room aspect is really important,” he says.

Other gay male athletes have helped pave the way for Rogers’ distinction. Back in 2005, professional lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein came out while playing for the Long Island Lizzards. David Testo, a lower division soccer player in Montreal, also came out in November of 2011.

And in April, Collins became the first NBA player to come out while currently signed to a team, only a couple of months after Rogers retired and came out as gay. Rogers has told reporters how proud he was of Collins’ decision and how the world of American sports accepted him. Then, within a few weeks, Rogers decided to come out of retirement and officially signed with LA Galaxy.

Despite the positive feedback he’s received from the soccer community, the actions of the Galaxy’s billionaire owner, Philip Anschutz, seem to be the only major piece of the puzzle that do not point to support. Anschutz has helped fund the Institute for American Values and Colorado Family Values, two organizations whose purposes are to oppose same-sex marriage initiatives in the U.S.

Anschutz's investment in Major League Soccer is so important that the championship trophy is named for him.

Furthermore, MLS recently announced the formation of an $100 million expansion team, to be called New York City Football Club. The owner of this team is England’s Manchester City FC, which in turn is owned by a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, a Middle Eastern regime with a history of intolerance toward homosexuality.

At a Galaxy training session the day before the game, I asked Rogers if he’s had a chance to talk to Anschutz about his anti-gay politics. Hi says he hasn’t, but would love to in the future.

“I think that this is a discussion that people need to have,” Rogers says. “Somebody asked me a question about the owner of the new New York City team and how they would possibly be a bit homophobic, and they asked me what message I would send to them. And I said I wouldn’t send a message to them. I would, you know, offer for them to sit down and have a coffee with me and discuss these kinds of things, because people have their opinions.

“I think it’s important to open that discussion, talk to them about your beliefs and hear out theirs,” he adds. “But, of course, I’m not going to support those companies.”

After playing most of the second period against the RailHawks, Rogers was asked about how he was received and seemed wholly unsurprised by the reaction of the crowd.

“You know, I think it was the same as if I had come here just as a straight Galaxy soccer player,” Rogers said with a slight smile.

The Galaxy were unable to break down the RailHawks defense. Here, Jordan Graye tackles Greg Cochrane.
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson
  • The Galaxy were unable to break down the RailHawks defense. Here, Jordan Graye tackles Greg Cochrane.

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When Robbie Rogers took the field against the Carolina RailHawks last week, he expected to be booed. But he wanted to be booed like any other opposing player.

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