“There’s a lot to be excited about. It’s awesome to be part of a movement that is changing our society.”
On Saturday one of the most depressing sports stories of the last year became one of the most inspiring when Robbie Rogers announced that he would be signing with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. In February, the 25-year-old soccer star told the world in the same breath that he was gay and he was retiring. “I wouldn’t want to deal with the circus,” he said. “Are people coming to see you because you’re gay? Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys—how’s that?… [Expletive] it. I don’t want to mess with that.”
It was an understandable but tragic surrender to the anti-gay bigotry that has historically defined professional sports from the stands, to the locker room, to the front office. Now Robbie Rogers is done surrendering. He’s returning to the sport and doing it with the unbridled joy of George Costanza, saying, “I’m back, baby!”
Yes, Robbie Rogers has officially un-retired and will become the first openly gay male North American athlete to take the field in one of the “big five” sports. Playing alongside superstar and friend Landon Donovan, and coached by former USA men’s national soccer team helmsman Bruce Arena, Rogers’ return is a testament to how much has changed since NBA player Jason Collins came out last month. Rogers saw how much support Collins received and was moved from his previous pessimism that he would never be accepted. His compunction to return was cemented after speaking at an LGBT youth forum to 500 kids.
“I seriously felt like a coward,” he told USA Today. “These kids are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”
After deciding to come back, Rogers realized that the greatest obstacle was his own trepidation. “I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” he reflected. “It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing I’ve learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to people…. I think as the younger get older and the generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more accepting.”
Another sign of the times is that Rogers was raised in a very religious home and still considers himself a devout Catholic. As he said, “Being Catholic—and people may disagree—but we are called to love everyone. Be honest. Be true in your relationship with God. I’ve always lived that way.” That sound you just heard was Rick Santorum’s head exploding.
Now in one day, instead of representing the past—the idea that the only way a male athlete could come out would be if he also retired—Robbie Rogers will represent the future.
When Jason Collins said he was gay in the pages of Sports Illustrated, Martina Navratilova, the tennis legend who came out in 1981 wrote astutely, “I think—and hope—there will be an avalanche. Come out, come out wherever and whoever you are. It is beautiful out here and I guarantee you this: You will never, ever want to go back. You will only wonder why it took so long.”
We haven’t seen an avalanche yet. But just as Collins’s announcement made it easier for Robbie Rogers, this latest news will make it easier for the next person to be honest and public about who they are. It will also make it easier for reluctant teammates to get over themselves and be the kinds of allies every LGBT athlete both needs and deserves. Not an avalanche, but brick-by-brick, we are seeing before our eyes the building of a new paradigm in men’s sports. It will continue to develop until in a not-to-distant future, the issue of having a gay teammate simply won’t be an issue at all.
As for Rogers, he sounds profoundly happier now than he did when he retired with his head down. “I want to get back to soccer, which is what I love,” Rogers said to the Associated Press. “I get to do something I love, and I get to help people and be a positive role model. I’m really excited to set a great example for other kids that are going through the same thing I went through. It’s a perfect world for me, a perfect world.”