In 2013, Robbie Rogers made headlines by becoming the first openly gay man to compete in an American sports league. Over that time, Rogers has come into his own, both as an athlete, reviving his career by adopting a new position and transforming himself into one of the leagues top left backs, and as a role model for the LGBT community. His recent book, "Coming Out to Play," detailing his journey of self discovery and decision to come out, has been especially important in that regard.
Robbie Rogers is always a great interview. He's the type of guy who takes a moment to consider the question, then looks you in the eye and gives you an honest well thought out answer, and on MLS media day, things were no different.
A lot has been made of late about the following passage in Robbie's book when he describes all the love and support he got from coaches, teammates and family members all around the world when he came out.
"It's funny. You would think that with all the notes and messages and phone calls that came in, I wouldn't notice the one that I didn't get. But there is one coach who had been an important mentor, who has helped guide me throughout my career, and who I thought I'd hear from but didn't... It really saddened me that even after I wrote to him twice, he was silent. I can't help but wonder why"
Many people have interpreted that passage to be about Jurgen Klinsmann. And, indeed, the title of mentor certainly fits Jurgen when it comes to Robbie's soccer career. "I've known [Jurgen] since I was 12 or 13 years old" he says. "Jurgen wrote my letter to Leeds to get my working permit. He was one of the guys who spoke to my mom about whether or not I should go to residency. He used to drive me to Galaxy training when I was younger"
I asked him specifically about the passage and whether or not there was a rift between them, especially with him not being called up to January camp.
"The truth is, it's difficult for me to answer because I haven't talked with him," he said with a shrug. "I don't know how he feels about anything. ... I don't know how he feels about me as a soccer player. I don't know about how he feels about the whole situation."
His tone was strange-as if he too was trying to make sense of it all. "I know he said there is an open door with me on the national team, so, that's cool, I guess," he said with a shrug, although there wasn't much enthusiasm behind it.
Of course, according to Jurgen Klinsmann, Robbie would have been called up if it were a full team camp. Whether or not there is any truth to this, I'll leave up to the reader, and frankly, it doesn't even matter.
Putting soccer aside, this is the story about Robbie Rogers as a human being. A human being who, after going through such a life altering experience as coming out publicly, sought the support of a trusted mentor. First waiting to hear from him directly. Then, as the book lays out, taking the trouble to reach out to him through email, not once, but twice. And Jurgen never responded.
"I think he and I need to have that conversation: a life conversation, if he's interested. I think it's more important to me than playing on the national team."
And it's those last bits that are most striking: "if he's interested," "more important to me than playing on the national team." This relationship is clearly about more than soccer, and from Robbie's perspective, it's entirely unclear why someone whose opinion he values so much, has suddenly disappeared from his life now that he's come out.
Of course, without Jurgen's side of the story, it would be unfair to make assumptions about his reasons for giving Robbie the cold shoulder, or to even assume that Robbie's side of the story is completely accurate. I am not writing this to make allegations that Jurgen is homophobic, however, the unfortunate reality is, from a PR standpoint, that's the narrative some fans will see unless this issue is addressed.
And for a federation that is supposed to represent all Americans, that's completely unacceptable. One of the profoundly moving aspects of Robbie Rogers' presence in the league, is how many young gay athletes have been emboldened by his story to be comfortable being who they are. His presence in the league sends a positive message to those players. If Robbie Rogers can hoist MLS cup as an openly gay man, then why can't I?
Now consider what those same kids see when they see this story between Jurgen Klinsmann and Robbie Rogers unfold in the press? Consider the underlying implication in the story, from their eyes.
Whether or not the perception that Klinsmann is uncomfortable with Robbie Rogers' homosexuality is fair to him, is irrelevant. The only thing that's relevant is that the perception exists. For all the progress that Robbie Rogers has made with these young gay athletes, US Soccer can not turn around and undo that, letting rumors dictate the narrative. The issue must be addressed.