I wouldn't be surprised if schoolchildren across America thought the word "gay" is a synonym for "old," because every time a professional athlete comes out of the closet, he promptly retires.
The latest competitor to come out and then promptly get out is Robbie Rogers, a 25-year-old who plays for the MLS Chicago Fire. His statement announcing his sexual orientation was moving as well as eloquent:
I always thought I could hide this secret. Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined... I will always be thankful for my career. I will remember Beijing, The MLS Cup, and most of all my teammates. I will never forget the friends I have made a long the way and the friends that supported me once they knew my secret.
Life is so full of amazing things. I realized I could only truly enjoy my life once I was honest. Honesty is a bitch but makes life so simple and clear. My secret is gone, I am a free man, I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.
He also wrote, "Now is my time to step away. It's time to discover myself away from football."
I really hope that Rogers reconsiders and promptly returns to the field. I've got news for him: He will be gay for the rest of his life, but his athletic ability will be short-lived. If soccer really gave him such incredible joy, there is no reason that he can't discover himself while still on the team. Presumably, they will allow him to visit gay bars and join LGBT political organizations after practice is over, so I don't really see the conflict.
One more reason to return to soccer is that he has the support of his team's head coach, Frank Klopas, who told the team's website, "Yesterday I thought he was a very good player and I still think that today. Should Robbie want to return to the game, we would still be open to him being part of the Fire."
I can fully understand where Rogers is coming from at the moment. As someone who played football, basketball, baseball and bowling, I starkly remember the depressing amount of homophobia in the locker room. Many times I've told the story of how one of my high school basketball coaches, barreled into the locker room after a loss and screamed that our team "played like a bunch of faggots, except for Wayne," after I scored 25 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in our defeat. Still closeted and fearful (it was 1987, after all), I remained silent and allowed the slur to go unchallenged.
A vivid reminder of my sports closet, the dreaded Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, arrived in my mailbox this week. When I see it, it brings back bad memories of high school, when I had to pretend like I was salivating over the models when teammates would inevitably bring the issue into the locker room. "Yeah, they are so hot, dude!" I would exclaim as I faked attraction. In reality, I was about as turned on by those models as I was by the paper their bodies were printed on.
A few gay rights advocates have gone way overboard in their reaction to Rogers' coming out, saying he had "enormous courage" and that it represents a "tipping point" for gays in sports. I think Rogers deserves a modicum of credit for displaying a degree of courage, but "enormous courage" would be returning to the soccer field to serve as a role model for LGBT youth, and being a living, breathing example of the fact that openly gay people can succeed in all sectors of society.
Furthermore, we are nowhere near a tipping point, though we have progressed to a "tripping point" where athletes who used to gay bash now have to think twice about what they say before tripping over their own words and making unwanted headlines. Moreover, enough space has been carved out that straight athletes can finally speak out on our behalf without fearing that they will be labeled gay by association. Terrific organizations like Athlete Ally are helping push this envelope and expedite progress by publicizing these straight athletes who support LGBT equality.
In an inspiring op-ed for USA Today, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo wrote, "Just like Jackie [Robinson], the breakthrough gay athlete will be a courageous individual going it alone in uncharted territory. But, also like Jackie, he will have backup -- and hopefully more of it."
My advice to Rogers: Don't voluntarily wash out if you're not washed up. History is calling, and as a wise coach once told me, "if you are on the sidelines, you're not in the game."