By Patrick Salkeld
I started to write and research for this paper in February 2016 after I submitted a proposal for the inaugural Gender and Sexuality Studies Conference held at the University of Central Oklahoma in September 2016. I already planned to write about Robbie Rogers and his contribution to global history when he came out as gay on February 15, 2013, and this conference offered me an early opportunity. Yet, I expected to discover that in the years after Rogers’ announcement, Major League Soccer (MLS) and its teams, especially the LA Galaxy, completely and publicly supported the LGBT community. Nonetheless, as always, the sources and recent events forced my paper to divert to a completely unexpected topic. American soccer showed it accepted gay athletes and offered more success to them compared to the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and football in England as shown in the first half of this paper in regards to some of the first openly gay active athletes Justin Fashanu, Michael Sam, and Jason Collins. Yet, despite Robbie Rogers’ participation in American soccer, MLS responded inadequately and provided only minimal support for the LGBT community in the aftermath of the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on June 12, 2016. This tragedy displayed one problem the LGBT community continues to face in the sporting community—full recognition and unabashed public support.
Before Robbie Rogers opened up about his sexuality, another player broke through the barrier twenty-three years earlier. Justin Fashanu, a black Englishman of Guyanese and Nigerian descent, became a professional football player at age seventeen in 1978 for Norwich City. Teammates, coaches, and the media suspected his homosexuality for several years before he came out as gay in 1990. His decision to publicize it actually occurred because a newspaper photographed him at a gay bar and he chose to open up first in order to limit the damage. It made him the first professional footballer to announce his homosexuality. Fans and managers targeted him with homophobic slurs and comments during games and trials with teams. He continued to compete; however, his career had long suffered because of previous injuries, his inconsistencies in games and practice, and preference for his materialistic lifestyle and money over playing well. Fashanu bounced from team to team as a player and sometimes a coach, but failed to find a permanent home in England, Canada, or the United States. In 1995, he joined the Atlanta Ruckus (now the Atlanta Silverbacks) and played with them until 1997 when he transferred to New Zealand for his final season as a professional athlete with the Miramar Rangers. After that brief stint, he returned to the United States to coach the Maryland Mania. He committed suicide a year later after a young man accused him of sexual assault; it left him without any hope of proving his innocence because of his sexual orientation.
Growing up in California, Robbie Rogers started his soccer career at age four in 1991 a year after Justin Fashanu opened up about his sexuality. Rogers played first for the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) then transitioned into competitive club leagues, such as the United Soccer League Premier Development League (USL PDL), and excelled at Mater Dei High School from which he graduated in 2005. During his formative years, Rogers realized his identity as a homosexual man; however, he kept this knowledge private and refused to let it resurface out of fear of his teammate’s rejection, of failure to become a professional soccer player, and the conflicts of being gay and Christian. Upon graduation, he attended the University of Maryland for one year, alongside several of his future Columbus Crew and LA Galaxy teammates. Instead of continuing, he decided to leave the United States and start a professional career in the Netherlands where he played for Sportclub Heerenveen.
Rogers left Heerenveen after one season. He felt like an outsider in the foreign country because he “didn’t speak the language, where the culture was different.” Because he felt lonely, his burden afflicted him much more. In 2007, he returned to the United States and signed with the Columbus Crew, a Major League Soccer (MLS) Team in its tenth season. During his time with the Crew, he proved himself on the field, much like he promised himself after leaving the Netherlands. Rogers scored thirteen goals, and in his second season, he helped them win the 2008 MLS Cup.
In 2011, a Swede named Anton Hysén came out of the closet and became the second active, openly gay football player in Europe. At the time, he played for Utsiktens BK of Division 1 Sodra, the third level of Swedish professional football. He drew attention mostly from the British media, and for the most part, all of it consisted of inclusive articles and interviews rather than disparaging attitudes. In 2014, he then transferred to Myrtle Beach FC of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) in the United States. Unless one follows amateur American soccer, one might never know it exists because American media only briefly discusses it. As a result, Hysén largely received no attention from American media aside from local newspapers in South Carolina, OutSports, other LGBT centered publications, and international news sources like BBC News and the Daily Mail. David Testo, a former MLS and USL player, also came out in 2011 and received more attention than Hysén, but still little in comparison to Justin Fashanu or Robbie Rogers who later revealed his sexuality.
Robbie Rogers left the Columbus Crew in 2011 to move to England and play for Leeds United. Injuries hampered his time with the club during his two seasons with it. The manager also loaned him to Stevenage F.C., an English team in the fourth division called Football League Two. After Leeds ended his contract, Rogers made a life-changing decision. On February 15, 2013, Robbie Rogers retired from professional football. Because of the fan and stadium atmosphere in England, He told the world when he posted a message, titled “Just Getting Some Sh*t Off my Chest,” on his blog and revealed his long-buried identity as a gay man. He used football as “[his] escape, [his] purpose, [his] identity” and a way to prevent his secret from ever surfacing. This decision gave him “time to discover [himself] away from football.”
In April 2013, Jason Collins also came out during the NBA’s offseason. A year passed until the Brooklyn Nets (formerly the New Jersey Nets) offered him a contract in February 2014. Collins retired in November from professional basketball “nine months since [he]…became the first openly gay male athlete to appear in a game in one of [the four major professional team sports]” (NFL, NHL, MLB, or NBA). Another athlete never received the same opportunity as Collins to openly play.
Michael Sam, an American football player at the University of Missouri and the 2013 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Defensive Player of the Year, in February 2014 mere months before the NFL draft in May, publicized his sexuality to the world in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN in order to be the person to tell his story rather than allow rumors or the media to ruin it. One ESPN writer, Dan Graziano, commended Sam for his decision, but went further to say, “The best way to celebrate it would be to leave him alone and let him play football.” The St. Louis Rams picked him “249th overall…in the 2014 NFL Draft,” which led to questions about the low position and whether or not it resulted from “homophobia, the ‘distractions’ that inevitably result when the league’s coaches, who are notoriously risk-averse, sign celebrity players…or [if] he would be difficult to cut.” The St. Louis Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher cut him from the roster on August 30, 2014. Fisher said, “It was purely a football decision.” Unfortunately for Sam, his public proclamation brought expectations, which he naively underestimated. Fans expected him to “establish once and for all that gays can play the most masculine sports and win at the highest level.”
In contrast to Collins and Sam, Robbie Rogers found success and stability as an openly gay active male athlete. He returned to the soccer field in May 2013 after a short three-month break. A month earlier, he spoke at the Nike Be a True LGBT Youth Forum in Portland, Oregon, and while there, he decided he needed to play soccer again. He debuted for the Galaxy on May 26, 2013, as a substitute against the Seattle Sounders. This historic game made him the first openly gay man to play in a top North American professional sports league. Out of thirty-four matches in the 2013 MLS Regular Season, Rogers played in eleven games, of which he started in seven, for a total of 602 minutes.
Rogers’ time on the field doubled in 2014 to 1,372 minutes. He played in nineteen games and started fifteen of them. Two Galaxy defenders, James Riley and Todd Dunivant, suffered injuries during the season, which allowed Rogers to play more because Bruce Arena, the head coach, switched him to the left defender position. He helped it evolve into a “backline that allowed the fewest goals in MLS that season.” During 2014, the Galaxy also held its first Pride Night and included Rogers in the celebration. They sold tickets with scarves signed by him to the first 100 buyers.
The LA Galaxy qualified for the 2014 MLS Playoffs and the MLS Cup, the league’s annual tournament designed much like the NFL’s Super Bowl and unlike other soccer competitions. The club faced the New England Revolution, a team based in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Both teams scored a goal in the second half, which forced them to play in extra time. Rogers subbed out in the ninety-first minute, but became the first openly gay male athlete to win a professional sports title in the United States.
The 2015 season proved a difficult year for the Galaxy as it lost Landon Donovan to retirement. Yet, it turned into a memorable year for Robbie Rogers. During his time with Leeds United and Stevenage, he failed to produce any goals. It seemed unlikely he would score a goal with the LA Galaxy as well because he transitioned to primarily defense; however, his experience as a midfielder allowed him to help out on offense as well. On June 24, 2015, the LA Galaxy held its second annual Pride Night and Rogers scored his first goal in four years. After the game, he celebrated with his fans as he participated in a questions and answers session. It offered him the opportunity to connect with them and bring more awareness to homosexuality in soccer.
In March 2016, the LA Galaxy signed a contract with Chick-fil-A franchises in the Los Angeles area. This agreement designated the fast-food chain as the official restaurant partner for the club. The fried chicken provider’s anti-LGBT reputation resurfaced in the minds of the LA Galaxy fan community along with confusion as to why the team chose Chick-fil-A for that reason. The basic answer to this question—a business venture. On Twitter, the Galaxy advertised a new promotional deal, “After Kickin Go 4 Chickin: When the Galaxy score off any free kick, you receive a free Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich at participating SoCal restaurants by presenting your ticket stub.” This partnership offers Chick-fil-A advertising and promotional material for the LA Galaxy. The following day, Robbie Rogers released a statement on social media, “I look forward to the day where I am not the only professional soccer player that addresses these issues in our league…but The LA Galaxy have been extremely supportive of me and my family. Although I don’t support or eat Chick-Fil-A, I do support my club and have since I was a young boy.” Instead of responding with backlash, Rogers saw the opportunity to educate “and have a positive influence.” Two months later, another opportunity arose for MLS to improve its support.
On June 12, 2016 at two o’clock in the morning, Omar Mateen walked in to Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed forty-nine members of the LGBT community in the city and wounded another fifty-three with an AR-15-type assault rifle. News outlets called it the deadliest mass shooting in the United States. Along with other parts of society, American sports organizations—baseball, American football, hockey, soccer, and basketball—responded with words of support and moments of silence before their games started.
The United States Soccer Federation, or U.S. Soccer, tweeted out a statement that afternoon to offer their “condolences and prayers to those affected.” MLS retweeted US Soccer’s sentiment along with those of other American players, coaches, and executives, but refrained from releasing its own statement. Its communications staff later wrote and published an article at 6:43 p.m. on its website titled, “Soccer Community Mourns Victims of Orlando Tragedy.” It featured tweets from Orlando City SC, Orlando players Kaka and Seb Hines, Alex Morgan (USWNT star and Orlando Pride player), Philip Rawlins (Orlando City President), Robbie Rogers, Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls player), and Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, and introduced the responses with this statement, “The tragedy resulted in an outpouring of support for the victims and their families, including a number of players and officials from Orlando City SC, Orlando Pride, and around Major League Soccer.” The LA Galaxy as well only retweeted statements by two of its players Robbie Rogers and A.J. DeLaGarza, a member of Athlete Ally. Instead of showing more solidarity, both organizations dedicated much of their social media updates to advertising the Copa America Cententario, the U.S. Open Cup, and other soccer news.
That week between June twelfth and June eighteenth, fans waited as most of the professional soccer community went silent and as Gay4Soccer pointed out, “If 50+ people were killed in a church this morning, would things be continuing as normally as they are now?” One person tweeted, “MLS has an openly gay player in their ranks. Where is their statement explicitly supporting the LGBTQIA community?” MLS focused on publicizing the Copa America Centenario hosted by the United States, the one hundredth anniversary celebration of the quadrennial tournament. The final days of the competition’s group stage finished on June twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth—and the notoriously homophobic “puta” chant continued even after moments of silence for the Orlando victims before the games started. Neither MLS nor US Soccer made much of an attempt to quell this behavior—another sign of their failure to adequately support the LGBT community.
In contrast, the Orlando City Soccer Club (OCSC), a professional team in Major League Soccer, tweeted a statement much earlier at 9:58 a.m., “Our thoughts and prayers are with all affected by this morning’s terrible tragedy. #Pray for Orlando.” Aside from live updates about the team’s Open Cup match against the Jacksonville Armada “to provide a momentary distraction,” OCSC’s Twitter timeline consisted almost entirely of sentimental tweets about supporting the city and to advertise its upcoming game against the San Jose Earthquakes on June 18, which they “dedicated to bringing our community together to support #OrlandoUnited efforts.” The club also collaborated with the other Orlando sports teams—National Women’s Soccer League’s Orlando Pride, National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic, ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, and Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators—to sell t-shirts with a rainbow heart and #OrlandoUnited displayed on them to raise money for the OneOrlando Fund to benefit the LGBTQIA victims and relatives of the tragedy.
Three days later, the U.S. Men’s and Women’s National Teams (USMNT and USWNT) released a joint statement and used its “One Nation” theme to say, “One Nation that finds strength in unity and victory in solidarity.” The USMNT also published a video to the U.S. Soccer website in which players Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, Deandre Yedlin, John Brooks, Graham Zusi, Chris Wondolowski, Brad Guzan, Michael Orozco, Matt Besler, and Gyasi Zardes reaffirmed this “One Nation” attitude. The next day, June 16, 2016, the USMNT played Ecuador in the first game of the Copa America Centenario knockout stage. As the team walked on to the pitch, Michael Bradley proudly showed off his support with his rainbow-colored captain’s armband. He coordinated with the equipment manager to have the accessory produced overnight. During the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, MLS tweeted a photo of him with the armband and used the hashtag, #OrlandoUnited. This tweet represented MLS’s first official statement about the tragedy—a minimal one in comparison to Orlando SC, US Soccer, and Bradley’s armband. Bradley later donated both the armband and his game-worn jersey to be auctioned off to further support the LGBT community in Orlando.
On June 18, Major League Soccer finally released its own original form of support. Various players (including Robbie Rogers), Commissioner Don Garber, and Columbus Crew Head Coach Gregg Berhalter appeared in the video to say, “We are United.” Later that day, Orlando City SC and the San Jose Earthquakes played each other in the first professional sports game in Orlando since the tragedy and displayed the most touching tribute from American men’s soccer.
Before the game kicked off, ESPN’s coverage showed every aspect of the Citrus Bowl to its audience. Orlando City fans coordinated a strong display of support when they “coordinated T-shirt colors by sections to turn the stadium into a rainbow” through a Facebook campaign. During warm-ups, the Orlando City players wore purple shirts with the #OrlandoUnited and rainbow heart along with a rainbow armband. Brek Shea, an Orlando City player, even painted his cleats rainbow with EKG and heart symbols to represent Pulse and the victims along with a large wooden painting that displayed a heart, the EKG symbol, and the words “One Love.” The San Jose Earthquakes players wore black armbands in solidarity. Both teams adorned “Orlando United patch[es]” on their jerseys as well. The referees and children who walked out with the players also wore the shirts. Orlando City exchanged the normal orange and white corner flags for rainbow ones. The team’s management also “blocked off a section of seats – one seat for each victim” including “Christina Grimmie, a singer who was shot and killed in Orlando” on June 10, and attached different colored balloons to each seat, which made a rainbow. Finally, during the forty-ninth minute, the referee stopped the play to hold a moment of silence to represent the forty-nine LGBT victims. Unfortunately, the media attributed all of the day’s dedications to the victims to Major League Soccer when in fact Orlando City orchestrated the support from the tragic June twelfth to the game day events.
When Robbie Rogers joined the LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer in 2013, fans hoped it might stimulate more LGBT awareness in American men’s soccer. So far, both organizations have accomplished much to support the LGBT community; however, they and the rest of the American sporting world have much farther to go as shown in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting in June 2016. All support for the Orlando victims lacked any form of direct reference to them as members of the Orlando LGBT community. In the MLS video, they simply said victims and when Rogers said his line, “It was an act of violence that deeply impacted all of us, but especially the community in Orlando,” he left out LGBT. Unfortunately, the MLS marketing team likely forced him to not say it. None of the US Soccer statements mentioned the LGBT community. MLS and the LA Galaxy also oddly waited several days to show their support for the victims. They never offered any explanation, and now three months later, it still remains a mystery.
Yet, the LA Galaxy partially made up for its lack of specific support when the team held its third annual Pride Night on June 23. Unfortunately, Robbie Rogers underwent ankle surgery, which forced him to sit out the game, but he still attended and participated in another question and answers session, which included a speech about offering support and his happiness to be with the LA Galaxy. The team used this opportunity though to create a You Can Play video in which the players and coaches specifically “pledge to support…LGBT athletes and fans.” The LA Galaxy already actively supported LGBT athletes and fans with its inclusion of Robbie Rogers, but the video represented another step in LGBT awareness in soccer and sports.
Patrick Salkeld is a M.A. Candidate in History at the University of Central Oklahoma. His research focuses on the soccer’s rise in American football territory from the 1960s to 2005. You may contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @patsalkeld.
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