When the soccer player Robbie Rogers stepped onto the field as a member of the L.A. Galaxy in the 77th minute of the team’s match against the Seattle Sounders in May of 2013, he took a place in history. He was the first openly gay male athlete to play in a major-league game.
But saying he made himself a historical figure feels incorrect. After all, as he writes in his new autobiography Coming Out to Play (co-authored with Eric Marcus), Rogers wasn’t trying to take his place in the greater cultural pantheon. He was just a guy trying to play a sport he loves:
It is funny when someone says, “Representing the gay community …” or says, “Thanks for giving gay soccer players a voice.” I can’t take any credit for playing either role because I don’t represent the gay community and I’m not giving anyone a voice other than myself.
That's humble on Rogers’s part to say, but it’s also just accurate. Epic biopics that lionize their heroes create the illusion that important historical figures have larger-than-life personalities, but that’s often not true. Rogers, for his part, represents himself as simply a nice, well-intentioned, boring guy. And that’s not a bad thing.
Coming Out to Play feels a bit uncomfortable at parts—not to read, but as if the authors themselves weren't sure in their approach. The book tells of Rogers’s high-school years, college experience, making the decision to go off and play professional soccer—er, football—in Europe, all for little reason other than this is an athlete’s autobiography, and that is what happens in an athlete’s autobiography. The hook of the book, of course, is his experience in the closet, which gets weaved throughout the narrative with varying levels of effectiveness.
Later sections show Rogers does have something to say; for example, his coming-out story feels personal despite how “normal” it is. He worries about how his family will react, but then they love him! He comes out publicly, but then his family worries! Yet this is the section where the book's blandness proves most effective. The power of Rogers’s story lies in exactly how mundane it is—it’s the kind of story many people have heard before. It’s the kind of story LGBTQ men and women are living even now.
Yet even in this case, Play has problems. The narrative jerks outward to a national scale, talking about the president’s evolution on marriage equality. It reads like Rogers was afraid of getting too close to the microscope. He also cedes parts of the narrative over to his mother—both in this section and elsewhere. While there’s certainly a cute factor to hearing from Rogers’s mom, it just creates more distance between Rogers and the reader. There’s nothing bad or wrong about this, or about Coming Out to Play as a whole. It’s totally inoffensive, just like Rogers himself.
That inoffensiveness can be comforting, though. Not every “hero” needs to have a bombastic personality to make history. Look at Michael Sam, a soft-spoken guy who was brave enough to come out before the NFL draft. Sam, as was proven by his struggles to stay on a squad, is not the best football player. But thanks to his story—and to him being so likable—both fans and non-fans rooted for him, making his struggle all the more difficult to watch.
It’s easy to like Rogers, too, even if he’s not as exciting a prospect. He’s in a committed relationship with Greg Berlanti, producer of shows like Arrow and Brothers & Sisters. He’s got a fashion line, he plays for the Galaxy, and he has his own awareness campaign called BEYOND it, designed to help eliminate labels in our culture. In that vein, it’s best to think about Rogers not as exciting or unexciting, unique or bland. He’s best remembered as just “Robbie Rogers.” And that’s a pretty great thing for him to be—even if it doesn’t make for the best autobiography.