On February 15 of this year, Robbie Rogers, a former member of the U.S. Men’s National soccer team and a professional player in both Europe and the United States, posted on a personal blog that he was gay. Rogers would have been the first openly gay player in major American professional sports, but he announced his retirement in the same post. In a New York Times article today, Rogers didn’t rule out a return to the pitch but said he had no choice but to retire. “I need to be a little selfish about this,” Rogers told the New York Times.
This week, rumors swirled that a National Football League player was contemplating coming out as gay in the near future. That prompted Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons to tweet that a player coming out would be a “selfish act” that would “immediately separate a lockerroom and divide a team.”
That makes for an odd juxtaposition, the now openly gay former athlete thinking he’s selfish for coming out in his own way and the straight athlete who thinks it would be selfish for a player to come out at all. Clemons, who later tweeted that he had no problem with gay athletes but thinks they should leave their love life at home, could learn from the story of Rogers, who lived as a gay man in secret for years. Until last year, Rogers hadn’t told his family, his friends, or his teammates. He didn’t go to gay bars or date other men. It was, he told the Times, a terribly unhealthy way to live, though coming out has enabled him to find peace:
“I’m a Catholic, I’m a conservative, I’m a footballer and I’m gay,” he said, trying to describe his fear. “Imagine living all that time with just a cramp in your stomach. I kept thinking, I hope I don’t do something that makes people wonder, is Robbie gay?”
He added: “I was never close to coming out before. Never. I never went to any gay bars, never hooked up with a guy. It was so unhealthy and so bad that I felt this way. Two years ago, I would have thought that I would never come out during my entire life.” [...]
About a year and a half ago, he said, his fear turned into frustration. He realized he had never been able to feel complete happiness or joy because he always felt that he was hypocritical; as an example, he recalled, he felt little desire to celebrate after winning the M.L.S. championship with Columbus in 2008.
By January of this year, Rogers began telling close friends. Sacha Kljestan, a midfielder on the United States team who plays professionally in Belgium, visited Rogers in London a few weeks ago — the pair went to a pub to watch the Tottenham-Arsenal match together — and Kljestan said he had never seen Rogers more at ease.
Seeking that happiness and comfort in your own life isn’t selfish. Nor is it selfish for Rogers to step away from the game to seek out that peace without the media spotlight that would come from being an openly gay athlete in major male professional sports at a time when there aren’t any others. What is selfish is that someone like Clemens would put his own personal discomfort and insecurity at being next to a gay man in the lockerroom ahead of that person’s health, well-being, and ability to live an open and happy life as the person they are. What is selfish is that Clemons doesn’t understand what people like Rogers go through on a daily basis, and worse, doesn’t seem to care about understanding their struggle.
Millions of LGBT people are struggling with the same decision Rogers made, and an untold number of them are athletes. There are gay men in the NFL, perhaps even in Clemons’ lockerroom, who are having that same struggle, who live in the same closet in which Rogers spent 25 years, living a lie and unable to both embrace themselves and be embraced for who they are. I would love to see Robbie Rogers continue his career by carrying the banner for LGBT rights in sports. But it isn’t selfish of him to choose not to. But one day, a gay athlete is going to pick that banner up and take on that fight. If that person separates a team and divides a lockerroom, it won’t be because he is the selfish one.