As a professional athlete, Robbie Rogers played soccer for Leeds United and the LA Galaxy. He also authored a book about his experience coming out as a gay man in the world of sports. Now he’s using his experience of feeling like an “outsider” to inform his producing work on the CW’s high school football drama “All American,” which is based on the life of former NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger.
The worlds of soccer and football are not necessarily synonymous. What connected you to Spencer’s story and made you want to be a part of “All American”?
The first time I met Spencer, we talked about pre-seasons and injuries and traveling around and our families and all of that stuff. Our differences are obviously very glaring and obvious — I’m a white, gay man from Palos Verdes and he’s from South Central and twice the size I am. And of course I’ll never know what it’s like to be a black man in America, but the thing I connected with the most was really what it’s like to be an outsider. Being in professional sports, I was 24 when I came out, and my whole life I had felt like an outsider in sports, but then I came out and I very much felt like an outsider because I had never been on a date, I had never been to the Abbey — just all those kind of things that a gay man would do at a young age. There were a few worlds, and I wanted to know, “Where do I belong?” And Spencer, he talks about when he transferred to Beverly Hills, he felt like an outsider there and was trying to find his place, and then he returned to South Central, and he didn’t necessarily feel like he fit there either because they were like, “Oh, you’ve gone to Beverly Hills, you’re a different person.” So he was very much a man in the middle of different worlds, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I relate to him so much.” People reached out to me — gay and straight — and said how much they related to my story, and that was the same with Spencer. There’s a little bit of Spencer in all of us. We’re trying to follow our dreams, the sacrifices we’re willing to make, the feelings we have of we don’t quite belong — I think those are universal feelings.
How important do you feel it is to tackle some of the more serious topics in the world of sports on the show?
It’s not just a sports drama; sports is woven throughout the show to tell these emotional stories. And I think professional athletes in football and soccer and more, especially in our political climate, they’re making a statement by being a professional athlete. There’s a moment where a professional athlete has to decide if they’re going to stand up for what’s right. There are all of these different moments in history where it becomes important not just to be an athlete but to be an advocate as well. There’s this platform that you’re given — millions watch you around the world — and we just always use sports to tell larger stories, whether it’s communities during the World Cup or discrimination and police brutality, or for me as a gay man, the awareness of homophobia that exists in sports.
Do you feel like the awareness of or conversation around such things has improved in the years since you stopped playing soccer?
From my point of view — being a gay man in sports — sports is very homophobic, sexist, at times backwards culture. And as players come out, as people talk about female athletes and male athletes, as you talk about how it affects the nation, all of that stuff in sports, it gets better — we become sensitive to what we’re aware of. For me, our locker room was so open and players weren’t homophobic, but I’ve spoken to friends who play all over the world, and they still experience that stuff, especially if they play on a team with really religious guys or in different parts of the country that are not as progressive. That stuff still very much exists. Racism and discrimination have unfortunately been around in our country and in other countries forever. Twitter and other social media has given athletes an even larger platform to give that attention, but I don’t think what’s going on in the NFL or in other sports is [unusual], I just think there’s more of a spotlight on it.
How do you hope the conversation will continue to affect change, both in the world of real-life sports and the show?
You can’t hate someone when you really get to know who they are, and as a country that’s so divided on Twitter and everything, it [feels like] there’s no room for a conversation, but I think that we have the opportunity to get to know someone. Why is he joining this gang, or why is this person doing something? That’s their backstory and when you get to know someone, you understand — on either side. … A lot of athletes were my heroes growing up, and I listened to them — I watched what they said and they did and they inspired me, not just about sports but different things. And I think what different athletes are doing, a lot of kids watch that stuff. They enjoy sports, they enjoy the shows on the CW, and what they see sticks with them. If we do it in the right way it will be done in the way where we will bring people to the table and start conversations.
In 2014 you were developing a show based on your own life, but it didn’t get picked up. What did that experience teach you that you applied to “All American”?
It definitely excited and inspired me to want to do something like this. My experience with [executive producers] Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zadan] was so positive and working with the writers and pitching it. I loved it so much, and being a part of that was so fun and definitely excited me to want to find something else I was passionate about.
Did that experience, and knowing what your husband Greg Berlanti goes through when he’s producing, prepare you, or are you still finding unexpected challenges along the way?
There’s been tons of stuff that’s been challenging and surprising. I’m learning a ton of stuff every day. But I will say watching Greg go through this with now 14 shows, from when he was working on “The Flash” pilot and watching him edit and pitch and everything, it just taught me so much about what to expect and what’s most important and how to speak with people and be open. Sports is so different — you just lay it all out on the field. This has been like going to school, but it’s your husband, who you get to spend more time with, so it’s just so lucky — I think we both really feel that way.