After becoming the first out gay man in major North American pro team sports in February 2013, Robbie Rogers had high hopes for the future of LGBTQ athletes. The 31-year-old Major League Soccer cup champion, who retired in 2017, was sure more would follow.
But there are currently no openly gay professional athletes in any of the five major North American professional leagues, an alarming reality motivating former Trevor Project CEO and filmmaker David McFarland’s documentary, Alone in the Game.
Airing at 8 p.m. ET June 28 on the AT&T Audience Network, McFarland’s film takes a hard look at the stalled progress for LGBTQ athletes at professional, collegiate, and Olympic levels. Featured in the doc are Rogers, NBA center Jason Collins, NFL linemen Ryan O’Callaghan, and Olympic medalists Gus Kenworthy and Megan Rapinoe, along with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and former ESPN President John Skipper.
Upon watching the finished doc, Rogers was left feeling “sad.” “I cried,” he tells NewNowNext. “I don’t know what else there is to do for gay men to feel comfortable to come out. I’m not as optimistic as I used to be, just because my experience was so great that I would have hoped people would’ve seen that and been able to come out.”
Rogers says “more malicious” experiences in the locker room greatly improved while playing for the L.A. Galaxy as an openly gay man, and during his five years with the Galaxy. “I would make fun of [other players] for being straight and they’d make fun of me for being gay.”
For Rogers, the real challenge was navigating the overwhelming attention on his sexuality, an obstacle explored in the film as it also pertains to former NFL defensive end Michael Sam’s personal experience with homosexuality-averse sports culture. “The conversation, especially in the first year, was always coming back to being a gay man in sports,” Rogers recalls. “It affected my mind in terms of, I wasn’t able to focus on just being an athlete.”
Michael Sam at a St. Louis Rams’ pregame workout.
Coming out with no guiding role model, Rogers was faced with figuring out how to live his personal life in the public eye alone. Consequently, he cut back on media interviews, telling his agent, “I can’t just focus on the game and my health and playing as well as I can. I need to do less of this.”
To normalize queerness in sports and curtail the industry’s anti-gay stigma, Rogers says teams have responded proactively by holding LGBTQ-themed Pride Nights during sporting events. And this week, ESPN published its most queer-inclusive Body Issue, featuring Rapinoe and her partner, WNBA player Sue Bird, on the cover. But to completely normalize LGBTQ athletes in sports will take “more men willing to come out to where it’s not an issue people want to talk about anymore.”
For Kate Kendall, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, that reality is impossible. In the film, she bluntly advises athletes to “choose another career. These systems are not going to embrace and support you.”
But Rogers disagrees, pointing to the wholehearted support he received from his Galaxy teammates—to the extent, even, that they became close friends with his husband, Love, Simon director Greg Berlanti. “I just know from my experience of coming out and playing soccer for a while, people change and people want to love you and support you,” he says. “It’s just the ignorance.”
Combating that, he says, will take sustained support from teammates, coaches and leagues. “Something needs to happen. There needs to be changes, but I do now that when athletes come out, we’ve had huge support and it’s actually helped a lot of our careers.”
Alone in the Game airs at 8 p.m. ET June 28 on the AT&T Audience Network.