The lack of openly gay footballers is a pressing issue that the sport seeks to address. Some have taken the decision to come out after their careers have reached an end, including former Aston Villa, Everton and West Ham midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger, who became the first ex-Premier League player to do so when he revealed his sexuality earlier this year. However, when one considers that the UK alone has 92 football league clubs, each producing a match day squad of 18 players, the numbers are simply too vast for it to be likely that there are no gay professional footballers among them.
One player who bucked this trend is the former Leeds United full-back Robbie Rogers. The American international’s time in England was blighted by injury, managing only four appearances for Leeds in the Championship and a further nine with Stevenage in League One before departing the Yorkshire club by mutual consent in January 2013. Shortly afterward, Rogers announced via his website that he was gay and needed to take a break from the game to “discover himself” away from the intense media attention that would inevitably follow him.
The only other player in English football to have revealed he was gay while still playing was former Norwich striker Justin Fashanu in 1990, who tragically took his own life just eight years later.
The unique aspect to Rogers’ story is that he has since returned to the game, rather than opting to permanently end his career. In May 2013, he signed for LA Galaxy – an MLS franchise known in Europe partly for David Beckham’s time there – and has made 16 appearances for his latest side. Sadly, his persistent injury problems have significantly reduced the amount of playing time he has managed since becoming the highest profile, active, openly gay footballer.
However, although ‘soccer’ is far from the most popular sport in the US, and followed considerably less than American football, basketball, hockey and baseball, Rogers has become a role model for gay sportspeople in the US and around the world. Since then, NBA player Jason Collins has come out as homosexual since Rogers’ brave move to do the same, and specifically cited that the footballer’s actions had “blazed a trail” to allow fellow sportsmen to be open about their sexuality.
The hope is that more professional sportspeople – backed by initiatives like the Stonewall Rainbow laces campaign – will feel comfortable in being honest about their sexual orientation, and that this will be a step towards an environment in which no one feels that they have to hide their sexuality.