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The Legacy of American Pro Sport’s First Openly Gay Sportsman

Football fans will be mourning the retirements of Andrea Pirlo and Xavi, but this week the biggest applause should be reserved for LA Galaxy's Robbie Rogers

Social media is ablaze with gifs, memes and videos of Andrea Pirlo and Xavi at the moment, and rightly so. This week, both of the mercurial midfielders announced their retirement from football. Pirlo has already played his last match for New York City, with his career halted by his team’s departure from the MLS Cup. Xavi will call time on his career at the end of the season; he currently plays for Qatari club Al Sadd. In light of this unfortunate news, this week will perhaps be remembered as the week that the midfielder died; very few have exceeded the talents of Pirlo and Xavi.

But football fans should also remember this week as the week that Robbie Rogers retired. Rogers, who finishes his career at LA Galaxy having also played for Leeds United, Columbus Crew and Stevenage,  was unfortunately forced to retire prematurely having missed the entire 2017 season due to injury. It also isn’t the first time that Rogers has announced his retirement from football either; after being released by Leeds United in 2013, Rogers announced his retirement at the age of 25 in an Instagram post. More importantly, the same post revealed that Rogers was gay. With this revelation, Rogers became the first openly gay professional athlete in a major American sport.

“Rogers’ decision to come out amidst football’s milieu of bigotry is inconceivably brave. To carry on playing and gain plaudits at both a national and international level only adds to Rogers’ inspirational story.”

In an interview with The Guardian a month later, Rogers revealed that the reason for his retirement was the social scrutiny of being the first openly gay athlete in a elite American sport. He was also only the second footballer based in English football to come out after Justin Fashanu did in 1990. Rogers expressed his anxiety at how he would be received in the press and by his teammates. Having been encouraged to return to football by LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena and welcomed back warmly by his teammates at a training session in the summer of 2013, Rogers decided to come out of retirement. He would go on to win the MLS Cup with Galaxy and represent his country 18 times overall.

As the definition of masculinity alters as different lifestyles and sexualities become accepted more, the environment of the professional sportsman remains relatively unchanged. As Justin Fashanu’s tragic end by suicide in 1998 shows, it is near impossible for a sportsman to come out and be allowed to carry on his career in peace. Prejudice towards homosexuality is still rife in football even in the supposedly forward-thinking 21st century. Rogers’ decision to come out amidst football’s milieu of bigotry is inconceivably brave. To carry on playing and gain plaudits at both a national and international level only adds to Rogers’ inspirational story.

“Similarly to the improved tackling of racism in football and sport in general, homophobia will need its vanguards and spokesmen.”

Rogers’ case again highlights the need for change in football. Luckily for him, his coming out was met positively by friends, family and colleagues but Justin Fashanu’s reception couldn’t stand in greater contrast. Fashanu was derided by the press, fans and infamously by his brother, fellow footballer John Fashanu, who declared him an ‘outcast’ in an interview with The Voice after the news of his brother’s homosexuality made headline news.

In the same Guardian interview, Rogers remarked on the bravery of Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, who overcame racism in America. A comparable problem blighted football in the 1980s and even though racism still remains, the situation and the way that it is tackled has improved hugely. Similarly to the improved tackling of racism in football and sport in general, homophobia will need its vanguards and spokesmen. Hopefully Rogers’ bravery will open the floodgates and make everyone involved with football, both its professionals and its spectators, think carefully about the damaging effects homophobia has on the sport and society as a whole.

So this week, I’ll probably spend a little while on YouTube watching Pirlo and Xavi send the fast-paced, evolving game of football seemingly into slow motion with their deft touches, awareness and an acute ability for defence-splitting passes. I’ll mourn their artistry as a now bygone era. But I’ll also look forward to the future of the game, of which I hope Robbie Rogers’ legacy is just the beginning of a positive new chapter.

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