Robbie Rogers is steadily working his way back from an ankle injury sustained earlier this summer. He’s made good progress and is well enough to start preparing in earnest to return to the LA Galaxy’s senior squad.
In order to regain full match fitness, Rogers was sent over to the Galaxy’s reserve team. Over the weekend the reserves played a USL fixture against the Orange County Blues. Rogers put in a shift and did fairly well for himself in a 2-0 loss to OCB.
But that wasn’t the real story from the evening.
During the last 15 minutes of the game, an unnamed opposing player repeatedly called him “queer.” In tone and in context, it’s reasonably clear that the player meant it as a slur and was trying to get under Rogers’ skin.
As a quick aside: the history of the word “queer” is complicated, and some LGBT people (including yours truly) use the label to describe themselves. It’s a contentious issue within the LGBT community and not everybody agrees on whether it’s been truly reclaimed, but regardless, it’s pretty obvious that the word was being used as a slur in this instance. When it comes to the word “queer,” as with so much else, context matters.
In a post on Facebook made the following day, Rogers, currently the only openly gay player in MLS, said he decided not to make a big thing of it. His focus was on finishing the game and doing his job to satisfaction.
”Minutes later my head was back in the game. And this morning even most of the anger has faded and the predominant emotions left are just love and gratitude. I’m happy that I practiced restraint worthy of my sport. I’m thankful for the many players on my team and even the opposing one who apologized to me for one man’s actions. Today, I woke up grateful to work in organization filled with so many players and coaches who have worked hard to practice tolerance of everyone and to help change a culture.”
Rogers also pointed out that other OCB players apologized to him for their teammate’s behavior after the game. He went on to say how important it is for more LGBT athletes, wherever they’re able and feel safe doing so, to come out of the closet and live openly in order to increase visibility and challenge hateful attitudes and biases in sports.
Rogers’ Facebook post made the rounds on social media yesterday and garnered a lot of attention. When he signed with the Galaxy three years ago, after briefly retiring as a consequence of publicly coming out, the American soccer community nervously waited for something like this to happen and wondered what the reaction might be. In a way it’s remarkable it took this long for any notable issue to come up— and, for the most part, it’s a sign of progress in the sport.
Fans and reporters praised Rogers’ handling of the situation as the post circulated. And in the wake of the news spreading, MLS and USL both said the problem would be dealt with.
It’s unclear how long the USL’s investigation will take or, indeed, whether anything will be done to address the issue once everyone forgets about it and moves on. But it’s encouraging that the default response so far has been to side with Rogers and for relevant authorities to feel compelled to do something about it.
One question remains that may get lost in the shuffle: would Rogers still have the kind of support he received had he handled it differently? There have been several documented incidents of players walking off the pitch in response to racist speech thrown their way. What if Robbie Rogers reacted similarly? What if he summoned a referee and demanded he do something? What if he refused to play until his opponent was dealt with?
Rogers had every right to handle it how he did, and he deserves support for it. Yet the reaction from fans and reporters in the American soccer community (many of whom, it must be said, tend to be heterosexual and cisgender) has been mostly to praise Rogers for handling it “the correct way” and for being “classy.” What signals does that praise send to others? What rules does it covertly set about how to deal with homophobic abuse? How will future transgressors of those rules be received?
These are not hypothetical questions. Plenty of people make the mistake of calling Robbie Rogers the first gay player in MLS, but that’s not true. He’s the first openly gay player in MLS. Sooner rather than later, more gay players will come out of the closet and live openly, and not every player is going to engage in the delicate dance of respectability politics. One day a gay footballer— and who knows, maybe it’ll be Rogers next time— will walk off the pitch in response to homophobic abuse. How will we react when that happens?