Major League Soccer has a lot of problems.
Understatement is fun, huh. But I’m not going to go on about its byzantine rules that are somehow at once protean and inflexible. I’m not addressing its rabid and vicious insecurity that causes the entity and its supporter base to feel the impulse to bully every other soccer supporter. I won’t be discussing how it’s legal structure is a monopoloid throwback to the age of robber barons. Nor will I be discussing how the league parades propagandists as analysts to create a form of punditry that is repugnant even to sophists.
No, rather, I am going to be talking about a player memoir. It is the story of the MLS player who has so far made the deepest and most significant cultural impact: Robbie Rogers.
Coming Out to Play, Robbie Rogers & Eric Marcus, Penguin, 2014
Player memoirs are always dreadful. It’s not the fault of the individual, however. The cult of personality that is built up around every celebrity creates unrealistic expectations in the cultists. A memoir often deflates the image that a fan has built up in the mind just as frequently as it confirms the suspicions of those who for whatever reason decided to detest the celebrity in question. The sporting world is no special enclave in pop culture, it is governed by the same whims and fancies as all other glitter and trash.
So when I say that Robbie Rogers has had the deepest and most significant culture impact of anyone in Major League Soccer, I mean it, but let’s keep things into perspective. In the pop culture universe, sports is an estate within which soccer is a tribe and our nation’s soccer a queer province.
You don’t grow up hating yourself by accident. You don’t learn to lie about your true nature on a whim. You don’t pretend to be straight just for the fun of it. You have to learn and be taught these things and I was a good student.
Coming out stories become cliche mostly due to cis-heterosexual lecherous ogling of all things outside its white shell. Normalcy covets novelty. Rogers immediately unsettles reader expectations while still fulfilling them by suggesting that the novel often just wants to be anything but that. He makes a parallel between his passions: to be a fully realized professional athlete and fully realized passionate person.
Nothing about the style of prose is difficult. In fact, Rogers is assuredly inoffensive to the point of seeming like a rather cute but dull lad. There aren’t really any clever bits though there are adorable vignettes (Robbie playing dress up with his sisters is one that is quite endearing). It makes it clear that nearly all of us read this book because of Rogers coming-out and that makes us voyeurs, fetishists.
There is nothing salacious or gossipy in this story. There is nothing heart-wrenching or tear-jerking. Coming Out to Play isn’t a melodrama. Here is Rogers matter-of-factly recounting the moment when he realized that he had had enough of hiding his sexuality, of pretending, and of enduring casual bigotry.
Yet I never get the impression that Rogers is or wants to lecture or sermonize. When he names names he doesn’t do so to insult or hurt individuals, rather the recounting revokes the pass given to acts and statements that, rightfully, should have consequences.
Bigotry should be shamed, no matter its so-called excuses. At the same time, Rogers repeatedly makes it clear that casual bigotry is virtually invisible to the bigot. Often Rogers shows us players who aren’t ardent bigots but rather unconsciously bought into the bias of cis-hetero culture. He makes it a point to show how easily the veil can be lifted and how usually those individuals can see the error of their ways.
But Rogers isn’t just writing a coming-out story, he’s writing a soccer story. Stepping away from the game may have been instigated by the homophobic machismo of sport, but the game was in Rogers’ blood. You don’t spend your whole life working harder than most to become a specialized athlete to just stop in your prime. When news broke of Rogers retiring, many in the US soccer world were distraught. Mix into the this the ‘big reveal’ of Rogers sexuality, and most supporters felt a tinge of guilt. We had somehow in whatever infinitesimal degree driven from the sport we love one of its bright lights. And we knew that now the US Men’s National Team just got that much worse on the left.
So, Rogers return to the professional ranks was a boon. Yet his return to MLS engendered more melodrama than, arguably, his coming-out. In the same plainspoken fashion that he addressed the casual bigotry he faced, Rogers gives us a rare snapshot into the needless convoluted process of signing with Major League Soccer.
Money might not have been a motivation for Rogers, but money is the only motivation for MLS. A bizarre isolationism infects the organization, one that has lead it to not have teams in the real sense but rather brands that it owns and manages. Within the brands of MLS (i.e., Columbus Crew, Los Angeles Galaxy, or Chicago Fire), there is a desire for strict control over the features of those brands (i.e., players like Robbie Rogers).
There’s always a hitch, and these hitches are never clear to the lowly individual player. The machinations to bring Robbie Rogers back into Major League Soccer to play for the team he wanted to, LA Galaxy, had to involve a trade. Forward Mike Magee stepped up and volunteered. Magee wanted to move back home, Chicago, and Rogers wanted to play for his home team in Los Angeles. It was a nearly perfect story.
Ignoring the machinations of league policy, the trade would become briefly infamous. Magee’s arrival in Chicago saw him step out of the shadows of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and David Beckham in which he had labored unremarkable but certainly adequate. As the star on a middling-to-poor team, Magee went on a tear playing the second most minutes of his career and scoring more goals than he had ever done. Mike Magee became league MVP.
Meanwhile, Rogers was relegated to training and conditioning as he was still overcoming injury. He played sparingly and was underwhelming in those appearances. Fans grumbled and talking heads made outlandishly stupid claims implying that Rogers arrival was a publicity stunt and one of the worst trades in history. These were the tactics used to mute Rogers story, not Rogers himself, and the genuinely valuable cultural import it had.
Rogers is the first openly gay professional athlete in a major sport in our country. Our nation’s sports are at once fiercely prudish and hyper-sexualized. So Rogers, simply being who he is in the open, is a direct challenge to that sporting culture and the larger popular culture. And pop culture took notice. Unfortunately, to borrow a metaphor from the other football, Major League Soccer, its brands, its fans, and its pundits drop the ball on this one. They all recoiled from Rogers story and while it gained momentum outside of the soccer world, within it withered on the vine.
But that’s a wrongheaded statement. I’m wrong to say the fans recoiled. Supporters can seem fickle but in their heart-of-hearts they want to love. Rogers’s story gives us all something to love. It shows us just how a person can be authentic, the difficulties and the successes of it.
We’ve had a two seasons now to come to terms with our gay friend. We’ve done alright, not great, but alright just the same. Robbie Rogers didn’t win the MVP award, instead he played in the championship game and won the league trophy. Talking heads have moved on to their next silly statement, while Robbie Rogers has earned the admiration of the leader of the free world.
Rogers is a professional. He is not alone. We are his supporters.
Golazo!: The Beautiful Game from the Aztecs to the World Cup, Andreas Campomar, Riverhead Books, 2014
Love Thy Soccer: The Fan Rewrites the Book on the American Game, Sean Reid, 2015
The Damned Utd, David Peace, Melville House, 2014