Robbie Rogers (but not on the first date)

Back when the Da Vinci Code was a bestseller, a friend of my brothers went down in legend among our social group for his reaction: “It had more about religion than I expected”.

Naturally, we ribbed him mercilessly for the comment. Yet here I sit in a similar situation. I just finished Robbie Rogers autobiography (Coming Out to Play) and I have to say: I didn’t think it would be so much about his sexuality.

Of course, I knew it would be a prominent subject. His coming out as gay was arguably the most prominent event of its kind in football (and possibly men’s team sports in general) for decades.

Undoubtedly a watershed moment in the US, I have nonetheless found the labeling of the event – describing Rogers as “the first openly gay male to play a team sport in a top US league” – a bit contrived. MLS in particular seemed preoccupied with promoting it as a literal “first”, when it’s significance was weighty enough without such a tag.

There are already openly gay athletes, there have certainly been openly gay football players, they have certainly existed in the US.  In football, there have been a number of gay women out for a while and the year before Rogers announcement, minor league soccer player David Testo came out.

While I don’t care for the tag, I do agree with the importance placed on the event.  Nobody outside US Soccer Geekdom is aware of Testo and it was a breakthrough both for football and men’s sports in America.

Anyway, back to that book. Obviously, I was expecting it to feature the aforementioned subject matter.  However, my personal connection to Robbie Rogers is as a player of my favourite sport for one of my favourite teams.  I was expecting a bit more of a football autobiography than I got.  I’m none the wiser as to what it’s like to play and train alongside Guillermo Baros Schelotto or Robbie Keane.

That said, having read the book and RR’s account of his life, the reason why the narrative leaned more towards his “coming out” than “playing” is clear.  Y’see, when a celeb comes out as anything, be they gay, transgender, a fan of Michael Bolton or somebody who finds Barry Welsh amusing, I guess I’ve always jumped to the same conclusion: this is something that has been an accepted part of their life behind closed doors for quite some time and now they’re going public.

In this poor bloke’s case, that wasn’t true.  I won’t ruin the book for you other than to say, this isn’t a guy who’d been dating men for five years and kept it secret.  This was a bloke who had been aware of his sexuality for his whole life, tried to change it, tried to hide it and refused to act on it all out of fear at how it would affect his relationship with his family (especially his religious parents and grandparents) and his football career.  He hadn’t so much as dated another guy or told anyone he was gay until a matter of months before he made his public announcement.

His tale about how his family and friends proved his fears wrong reminded me of my own reaction to a family member coming out to me.  I regret to say I had a phase in my late teens when I developed a bit of homophobia.  Some of it was stupidly following along with attitudes and opinions of certain friends and I’m sure some of it was part of my own neurotic insecurities.

Then one evening I’m out with a couple of my cousins and their friends.  One of my cousins is particularly concerned about running into some guy.  After he mentions this a few times then spots him going into the club we were heading towards, I finally ask him if this guy is “after him” for some reason (for US readers, meaning wanting to beat him up).  My cousin responds with “Oh no, nothing like that”.  When I ask why we’re avoiding him then, he turns to our other cousin and somewhat jovially says “You tell him”.

She turns to me as my first cousin walks ahead, grins and declares “It’s his ex”.  I think I chuckled and replied “Oooh!” and after casually chatting to him about it, it occurred to me that I gave not a toss that he was this way and also that it was pretty clear this wasn’t something he’d chosen but just who he was.  Any notion of being homophobic from that moment on was gone.

Anyway, back to that book (again).  Overall it’s a decent read.  It was cool for me to read about his reception when he made history on his Galaxy debut, knowing I was among that crowd. Growing up locally to where I now live, it was also funny knowing a lot of the places he spoke about. The thing is supposedly ghostwritten, though to what extent is hard to say.  The writing style reminds me of Mick Foley’s “Have a Nice Day”.  Rogers doesn’t come across as having quite the wit or the anecdotes that Foley used to make that book so good, but it feels more like the writer transcribed rather than rewrote what the subject had to say.

It stands to reason that the book is short on anecdotes because there is plenty of heavy subject matter.  The guy clearly wasn’t truly happy in his own skin for most of his adult life.  He also had an atrocious series of major injuries.  He does have a tendency to bring in his Mum and sister to give their perspective on certain events, which serves a purpose but can be a little jarring.

The most disappointing part as I said, was the limited insight into his day-to-day playing career.  He describes his title-winning tenure with Columbus Crew in abbreviated fashion.  You get no real sense of the chase for the cup.  He describes few games and there are precious few references to career-defining on-field moments save for his injuries.  I was expecting a book about Robbie Rogers, a professional footballer who happened to be gay and got a book about Robbie Rogers journey towards coming out of the closet, which happened to take place against the backdrop of a football career.

That said, it’s an intriguing book and it does take you effectively on that journey.  He comes across as a likable man and you wish him well.  Refreshingly, it lacks the melodramatic, headline-grabbing tell-all nonsense that dogged recent sporting autobiographies (Yes Sir Alex, I’m looking at you).  The closest he comes is referring to a lifelong mentor who he hasn’t heard from since his coming out but doesn’t name him (it has since been made clear that it’s Jurgen Klinsmann). He also gets points for having a dog called Jeffrey.

I did find myself getting mildly (enviously) irritated at the struggles in his youth.  He’d get panicked at an acquaintance cracking a joke that cut too close to home and to reinforce the perception that he was straight, he would take up an offer from the apparent plethora of girls who frequently chased him.  In fairness he expresses a great deal of remorse at those incidents and I’m sure being crap with the ladies is nowhere near as hard as fighting a whole side of who you are.

Nonetheless, as he described going back to his room and having the unfortunate issue of finding a girl had sneaked into his bed, I couldn’t help but think “Well cry me a bloody river…”

In conclusion a decent book but don’t expect a gripping expose on life in MLS or at Leeds United.  I’m also not naive enough to think that there aren’t people out there who might be uncomfortable with the subject matter.  Overall though a good read that I’d recommend.

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