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One day, coming out won’t mean leaving

by | Feb 17, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

It will take a brave man, a confident man, maybe a jerk who couldn’t care less what other people think. But it will happen. It has to happen. Perhaps the man to make it happen is reading this right now.

If so, he should consider the story of Robbie Rogers. A talented soccer player from southern California, Rogers won an NCAA championship, played in Europe, England, the MLS and on the U.S. national squad.

He is 25.

Last week, he came out as gay.

And retired.

“I have been afraid, afraid to show whom I really was because of fear,” he wrote on his website. “Fear that judgment and rejection would hold me back from my dreams and aspirations….

“I always thought I could hide this secret. Football (soccer) was my escape, my purpose, my identity.”

And now it is his past.

Social media was quick to support Rogers. Players expressed their admiration. Some tweeted they were proud to be his friend.

But as of yet, none have talked him into coming back. Rogers spoke of sports as a thing of the past, saying he wanted to “discover myself away from football.” Perhaps he feels he would never be treated the same. Perhaps he just wants to move on with his life.

Perhaps he is not the one.

But that one is coming.

It’s just a matter of time

To date, none of the four major American sports – baseball, football, basketball or hockey – has an openly gay male player. There have been a few in Olympic sports like figure skating and diving. And women’s sports are far less skittish. Sheryl Swoopes, often called “the female Michael Jordan,” came out while playing in the WNBA in 2005.

When will it happen in the male mainstream? It is absurd to think that of the thousands of men who make up the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL, not a single one is gay. But nobody is stepping forward. No one, so far, wants to be the first.

How much longer will that be the case? Most workplaces, from movie sets to church pulpits, have witnessed openly gay members. Politicians. Judges. Businessmen. Once-taboo areas have accepted – sometimes begrudgingly – that a certain percentage of their population is and is likely to be gay.

Yet American pro sports remain a closed shop. Some of it has to do with tradition. Some of it is the macho culture. Some of it is not wanting to lose sponsors or endorsement deals. And some of it has to do with the showers.

It’s true. Whenever I speak to athletes about playing alongside a gay teammate, inevitably you hear something like, “Well, taking a shower with him would be weird.”

Chris Culliver, a San Francisco 49ers defensive back, got into hot water during Super Bowl week by telling a radio host that he would not welcome a gay teammate. “Ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do.”

When asked whether the team would welcome a gay player if he were talented, Culliver said, “Nah…in the locker room, nah. You’ve gotta come out 10 years later after that.”

That’s been the pattern so far. Several former NFL players have revealed their homosexuality after retirement.

But not one during his career.

How much longer?

The fears will be silenced

There was a play a few years back called “Take Me Out” that examined a baseball season after a star player announced he was gay. The teammates’ reactions ranged from supportive to downright vicious. The play ended when a homophobic pitcher, in a fit of rage, throws a ball directly at the head of the gay player’s friend and kills him.

Perhaps fear of such overreaction keeps players silent. But I have my doubts. I think it’s just a matter of time. Once athletes realize that showering off sweat is not a seduction, that silly fear will be gone. Once athletes realize that everywhere else they go – the clubs, the hotels, the airplanes – they are socializing with some gay people, the fear of infiltration will evaporate.

But someone has to be the first. It will take a brave man, a cocky man, maybe a man who feels he’s made enough money. But sooner or later, the next Robbie Rogers is going to come out like Rogers did, and then suit up for the next game.

And you know what?

The next day, life will go on.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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