On Sunday night the LA Galaxy’s Robbie Rogers, a former U.S. national team player, became the first openly gay American male professional team-sport athlete in the “big five” sports, of which the MLS has the third-highest attendance. And although he is the second gay male athlete to play in a major league game of any sport – after Andrew Goldstein who was openly gay when he was drafted into Major League Lacrosse in 2005 – his story is important because of the history of racism and homophobia in soccer.
However, with American major sports being as progressive as they are now, gay athletes coming out are not, as some have claimed, breaking ground as Jackie Robinson once did, but rather just confirming what everyone knows: That from a purely statistical standpoint we already know there are gay players in every league.
After publicly announcing that he was gay in February, Rogers decided to retire. However, with support from his agent and Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, Rogers returned to play his first match as an openly gay athlete on Sunday, and in a sign of how progressive sports league have become in the United States, the atmosphere in the stadium did not change in the slightest when Rogers came onto the field in the 77th minute. The crowd was typical, the media turnout was ordinary, and there was no particular reaction to Rogers entering the game. “I keep saying the word normal, normal, but it was,” Rogers said. “It was just good to be back. I’m excited to move on from here.”
In the NBA, Jason Collins recently became the first active American professional athlete to come out as gay, and received praise from across the league and from President Barack Obama. Without disparaging Collins whatsoever, it seems as though the Human Rights Campaign calling Collins a “hero for our own times” seems excessive. Many athletes before him have come out as gay in retirement, and many have come out to loved ones and teammates. Early ‘90s Cowboys players have recently said that they knowingly played alongside gay athletes.
Collins does not face the world of Ben Chapman and his Philadelphia Phillies who spewed obscene hatred at Robinson. Today in the NHL, the Carolina Hurricanes are working with the You Can Play Project to encourage gay and lesbian inclusivity in professional sports. On the organization’s website, www.youcanplayproject.org, Hurricanes forward Kevin Westgarth says, “You want people to feel comfortable being who they are and know it’s not going to affect what people think of them and what they’re able to do ... if you’re good enough to play on my team, I want you on my team.”
Neither Rogers, nor Goldstein, nor Collins can be said to be the Jackie Robinson of their respective sports, but what does make Rogers’ case unique is that the taboo of gay players remains particularly strong in international soccer, with no openly gay players in Europe’s top leagues, and homophobic chants still occurring at games. Former NBA player John Amaechi said he knew of friends in the English Premier League who were gay: "Many of them are out already, [but] they are out in the way that most people are out in that people they love and that people who care about them know that they are gay. But random strangers don't know that they are gay."
Justin Fashanu, the only top-level British soccer player to have come out publicly, hanged himself at the age of 37 eight years after coming out as gay in 1990. He left a note saying that he feared he would not be given a fair chance facing charges in court because he way gay. Elsewhere in soccer, last year Italy forward Antonio Cassano said he hoped there were no homosexual players on the national team and used a derogatory word to describe gays. In Russia fans of the St. Petersburg club signed a petition saying gay players were "unworthy of our great city."
While the U.S. is far ahead of Europe with regards to inclusion in major sports leagues, with the first gay U.S. professional athlete coming out in 1977, Rogers’ choice to come out is different because as an MLS player it is very possible that he will soon find himself facing homophobia playing in Europe, where he was before joining the Galaxy.
Collins said of his coming out, “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Hopefully U.S. professional sports are, as they appear to be, at a point where the sexuality of players is insignificant, and coming out is not heroic, but rather viewed solely as a private matter with no bearing on the court or field. We can only hope that international leagues will follow this example.