The name-check was entirely unexpected. After the LA Galaxy had won the 2014 MLS Cup, with Robbie Rogers starting at left back, Barack Obama gave him a special mention during the president’s speech when he welcomed the team for its then-customary champions’ visit to the White House.
“I want to recognize what Robbie Rogers of the Galaxy has done for a lot of people by blazing a trail as one of professional sports’ first openly gay players,” Obama spoke. “My guess is that, as an athlete, Robbie wants to win first and foremost. That’s what competition is all about. But Robbie, you’ve also inspired a whole lot of folks here and around the world and we are very proud of you.”
— LA Galaxy (@LAGalaxy) November 7, 2017
Rogers said he didn’t see the shout-out coming, largely because he seemingly hadn’t considered that it might be a possibility. For all the publicity he would attract for his sexual orientation, Rogers remained a soccer player before all. And in one of the game’s unheralded positions, you aren’t often singled out for special praise.
But that’s what made him a fitting pioneer: he hadn’t set out to be one. And he had little use for the plaudits it brought him. After he came out publicly in early 2013 and briefly retired, Rogers had returned to soccer because he badly missed it. Because he thought of himself as a soccer player.
Yet he was the first. Not just in soccer, but in all of major professional team sports in North America on the men’s side. He beat NBA player Jason Collins to it by nine months. Rogers made his first Galaxy appearance May 26, 2013. Collins got on the court for the Brooklyn Nets Feb. 23, 2014, his first game after coming out. He was first because if he wanted to come back, he had to be. An accidental pioneer, as most are.
But however momentous the occasion of an openly gay professional male athlete appearing in a major league game, it was soon forgotten. In a matter of a few games, Rogers became just another player. That’s partly due to the league he played in, which had a mostly accepting and liberal reputation long before Rogers returned to it after a failed, year-long stint in England and his 2 1/2-month retirement. But the Rogers story also died out because he never sought to amplify it.
In so doing — or not doing, to be exact — he served the cause he’d become a reluctant accidental figurehead for as well as he could. While there would have been nothing wrong with him becoming outspoken and chasing after as much publicity as he could as an advocate — there are plenty of gay rights issues that deserve attention, after all — his low-key approach normalized his presence.
Rogers, now a member of the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame, didn’t go out of his way to avoid the subject by any means, but by getting on with playing soccer, his sexual orientation receded to the second or third line of his biography, rather than the first word.
He made his barrier-breaking return to soccer about soccer. And while he had every right to approach it differently — and surely there are those who would have preferred that he did, employing his platform for good — he may have done more for other gay soccer players thinking of coming out this way.
Because Rogers started on a strong team for the better part of four seasons, winning the MLS Cup and demonstrating that he was no better or worse than before his announcement — if that somehow needed to be proven — when he was an MLS All-Star twice, an MLS Best XI selection once and made 18 national team appearances. He played so well there was even talk of a return to the national team. And in a new position, no less, since he’d been retooled from a winger to a back. And that’s the biggest favor he could have possibly done the sport, or our sporting culture as a whole.
But Rogers always had other interests. During his time away from the game, he dabbled in fashion design, a second career that only got more serious after his comeback with the Galaxy. Rogers is now involved with clothing lines sold at Target, among other places. And after he missed the entire 2017 season with nerve damage to his left foot following ankle surgery, his retirement at age 30 feels early but not entirely unexpected.
“I’ve played professionally for 11 years and I’ve accomplished pretty much everything that I want to accomplish. I feel like the last five years especially have been so rewarding for me,” Rogers told the Galaxy’s website. “I returned to play for selfish reasons, but the last five years, I’ve been able to play for more than that. I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do. I’m ready for another challenge. I’m also thinking about my body; I’ve had eight surgeries. … I told myself that I’d had enough with my body and I’m really happy with my career. I felt like this was the perfect time for me to step away.”
Rogers is engaged to be married and has an 18-month-old son with his fiance. “I’m a dad, I’m 30 years old, and I want to be able to kick the ball with Caleb when I’m 40,” Rogers said.
He appreciates the leap that the Galaxy took with him. In retrospect, it’s easy to dismiss the magnitude of his signing because it was never going to be a hugely big deal in super-tolerant Southern California, after all. But the club nevertheless set off into uncharted waters, and did so without reservation.
“I would like to thank [then-head coach and technical director] Bruce Arena for encouraging me to return to professional soccer after I came out as a gay man,” Rogers said in a statement. “I’d also like to thank all of my LA Galaxy teammates for accepting me from the first day I stepped back into the locker room at StubHub Center. Finally, I’d like to thank the fans for their continued support throughout my career.
“I’ll never forget the feeling of returning to the field in my first game back,” Rogers continued. “That feeling of acceptance and support pushed me as an athlete and as a person. Having the opportunity to win an MLS Cup in my hometown, with my hometown club as an openly gay man, will be something I will carry with me for the rest of my life.”
Soccer, meanwhile, will always carry Rogers’ legacy. That of an openly and proudly gay man, who showed that who he loved had no bearing whatsoever on what happened on the field.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.