Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins & Gay Athletes: Plenty of History Still to Be Made

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Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins & Gay Athletes: Plenty of History Still to Be Made

When the definitive history of American sports is written, Robbie Rogers and Jason Collins will be forever linked as the first two openly gay male team-sport athletes.

Now the question can move to…who will share that place in history with them, and what sport will they play?

Moreover, will the gay-athlete barrier not fully be broken until an NFL player decides to come out?

Those questions can only be asked because of the courage Rogers, Collins and many other retired players and non-team-sport athletes before them have shown. Someone will be next in that group, and it will likely happen soon.

The paths to their respective places in history could not have been any more different for Rogers and Collins, giving the next athlete—and the one after him, and the one after him—a much easier path to openness.

There is no right or wrong way to do this. Every gay athlete will be able to come out when he is ready in the way that makes him the most comfortable. No matter how it's handled, society—and the culture of American sports—seems ready to accept that, whomever is next and however it's done.

Looking at the way Collins and Rogers came out may lend some insight into what comes next.

 

THE COLLINS ANNOUNCEMENT

Collins decided to come out while in his mid-30s, at the tail end of his career and looking to hook on with an NBA team for what will be his 13th season in the league. Collins announced he was gay with an articulate front-cover essay for Sports Illustrated, taking the full weight of that announcement on his shoulders without any benefit of a safety net in his career or, potentially, in society.

Remember, Collins announced he was gay in late April, after his season ended—and during the NBA playoffs—without any guarantees he would find a job next season. There was a sense that people in and out of the sports world were ready for an openly gay male athlete in team sports, but until an active player announced it, nobody could be sure.

Collins jumped in that pool with both feet, using one of the largest sports media platforms on the planet to announce his decision, thereby making history in the most visible and, pardon the expression, open way possible. The timing was carefully planned and courageously handled.

 

THE ROGERS DEBUT

The MLS return for Rogers certainly had more fanfare than most players coming out of early retirement, but the news of his return to the field essentially snuck up on the sports world, completely by design.

After months of rumors linking Rogers with a move to Los Angeles—he had been training with the Galaxy for some time—the official word of a trade came down on Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend. 

The press conference to announce Rogers would be joining the reigning MLS champions took place on a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, during the UEFA Champions League final. It was a clear indication of the team and player not wanting his return to be any more of a sideshow than it had to be. 

There was very little build up to his return. There was barely even enough time to react to his official signing with Los Angeles before he was making his debut, somewhat discreetly as a substitute on a late Sunday evening on the West Coast of that same holiday weekend.

There was no ceremony for Rogers when he stepped on the field at the Home Depot Center in the 77th minute of LA Galaxy's 4-0 victory over Seattle on Sunday night. Nobody stopped the game to give the former U.S. Soccer international player a plaque to commemorate the milestone.

Rogers had his name announced, hugged his teammate Juninho as he replaced him on the field, untucked his jersey and rebooted his promising career.

That was it. Rogers was back, and he officially became the first openly gay male athlete to play an American team sport.

It didn't matter if Robbie Rogers was gay the moment he officially returned to the professional soccer field. He was a soccer player again.

 

THE BIG DEAL

In truth, Rogers and Collins being gay shouldn't be a story at all, but it is—and because it is, it should continue to be. 

Yes, this is kind of a big deal.

In a year, in five years and certainly a generation from now, a player coming out won't be a big deal because of people like Rogers and Collins and whoever comes next in line of openly gay athletes in the locker room.

After his first match, Rogers was able to finally reflect on the moment (via LAGalaxy.com): 

It’s crazy to me to think that I stepped away from this game at 25-years-old. Tonight, I’ll just sit in my bed and reflect that God gave me the courage to do this and to come back. Obviously, to something that I love, but obviously, something that will help kids my age who are dealing with the same stuff that I am.

Rogers was in a prime position to be a pioneer in the world of American sports. After struggling in England, he still had a home in MLS with his rights being held by the Chicago Fire and his services coveted by several teams—most notably the L.A. Galaxy—well before announcing he was gay.

Rogers knew he could have done something big, but instead, he thought the right path was to take his life away from the game.

When Rogers announced his retirement from soccer over the winter, the news made shock waves around the world, not because the then-25-year-old was planning to call his budding career quits after a rash of injuries kept him from playing at the highest level, but because in his eloquently stated goodbye to the game, Rogers chose to say hello to the world as an openly gay man.

It was a big deal for Rogers because that decision is a big deal for anyone who has had to go through life pretending to be someone they aren't just to fit in.

In February, Rogers wrote:

I always thought I could hide this secret. Football was my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined… I will always be thankful for my career. I will remember Beijing, The MLS Cup, and most of all my teammates.  I will never forget the friends I have made a long the way and the friends that supported me once they knew my secret.  

Now is my time to step away. It’s time to discover myself away from football.

It didn't take long for Rogers to discover that he could be himself and still play the game. If football was his purpose and his identity, that shouldn't have changed for him after announcing he is gay.

Yet how do you tell someone things won't change when no one had done it before him? Rogers didn't have anyone to show him that. The next player can see it now.

 

THE STIGMA

Let's not be naive; in the world of sports—especially male team sports—there is still a stigma surrounding homosexuality. That sentiment may, however, be slowly changing.

Sure, there are people who don't agree with the lifestyle and don't know or care why this is a big story, but they seem far outnumbered by the supporters. When Collins made his announcement, he was showered with adulation from many of the top players in the NBA, celebrities and heads of state.

The same goes for Rogers. Landon Donovan, for example, had nothing but positive words to say about him on Sunday night (via LAGalaxy.com):

For me, it’s inspiring in that it’s OK to be who we are. We all have differences, we all have things were going through and for him to accept who he is and be proud of who he is I think inspires all of us both as athletes and as people.

Sadly, we may not be all the way there just yet. When asked about gay marriage during a radio interview on Sunday, NFL MVP Adrian Peterson expressed a different opinion on the matter (via CBSSports.com):

I have relatives who are gay. I'm not biased towards them. I still treat them the same. I love 'em. But again, I'm not with that. That's not something I believe in. But to each his own.

Frankly, that's a rather reasonable statement from Peterson, in that he doesn't personally agree with gay marriage—which, per the CBS story, becomes legal in Minnesota later this summer—but he tries to hold no bias toward gay people. (Now, suggesting gay people have different legal rights than straight people is its own form of bias, but perhaps that's another debate for another day.)

Peterson is not the first NFL player to come out against coming out.

Some players don't think the league is ready for an openly gay athlete in the locker room. Others think a player's sexual preference is nobody's business one way or the other and that publicly coming out would be "selfish.

Of course it's selfish, but as we've seen with Collins and Rogers and the many people they've already helped make that difficult decision to stop living in the shadows and pretending to be someone they aren't just to fit in, coming out when you have a platform that big is rather selfless too.

 

THE BIGGEST PLATFORM

The NFL has the biggest platform in American sports. Let's not kid ourselves that while two athletes coming out in male team sports is a huge deal for our sporting culture, the resonance of a journeyman center at the end of his career and a fringe U.S. soccer midfielder are nowhere near what would happen if—sorry, when—the first NFL player comes out.

Mike Freeman of CBS Sports reported this spring that several NFL players were contemplating coming out, perhaps even together to lessen the burden on just one of them. That report came before Collins decided to make his announcement, which may have changed their decision for one reason or another.

Still, Freeman had several articles this spring, including one where he confirmed that an NFL team had at least one player who is not openly gay but was out to other players on the team (via CBSSports.com).

"We saw him as a player," said the teammate, "not as a gay player."

According to players, members of the coaching staff knew the player was gay and the wives of the players as well.

The player played on a team previous to the one last year and I was told many of that team's players also knew, and that team's players also didn't care.

Surely, recent comments like those by Chris Culliver during Super Bowl week, or more tempered ones like Peterson's this week, could dissuade a player from announcing he is gay.

It shouldn't. If anything, putting a face to this can personalize it for those players—and, let's face it, fans—who don't care for the lifestyle.

The idea of a gay NFL player may turn people off, but the All-Pro wide receiver who just so happens to be gay could make people in and out of the locker room more accepting.

 

BREAKING THE BARRIER BEFORE IT'S GONE

When Collins made his announcement, many people in our industry likened it to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball.

The two are not the same for many, many reasons, but they are similar in one very basic way: They were the first to break down a barrier of intolerance in American sports.

Unlike Collins or Rogers, Robinson couldn't hide the fact he was black. There were no "Gay Leagues" like the Negro League in Robinson's time in history. Our society is far more tolerant now than it was back then.

Still, a barrier has been crossed, and Collins and Rogers were the first, just like Robinson, and Larry Doby with the Cleveland Indians a few months after him.

Do you remember who was third? Fourth? Tenth?

Does anyone remember the name Hank Thompson, who debuted for the St. Louis Browns just 12 days after Doby? What about Willard Brown, who joined Thompson two days later?

Brown played just 21 games in MLB and struggled mightily amidst the racism thrust upon players of that era. A star in the Negro League, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

The Jackie Robinson story could have, and perhaps should have, been about Satchel Paige. Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were both in the Dodgers farm system when Robinson got called up to play in the majors.

The list of players who had the courage to break the color barrier in baseball is quite long, and each of those players had to deal with their personal issues of racism in their respective cities. Still, Robinson was the first, and for that he's remembered in history in a different way than the other players.

 

A PLACE IN HISTORY

A generation from now, Collins and Rogers may be seen in a different way than the players who come out after them.

The first openly gay player in each sport will be big news, and with rumors this offseason suggesting one or more NFL players will be coming out soon, there would be no bigger news in American sports this year than that.

Somewhere at an OTA or minicamp this week, an NFL player is looking at himself in the mirror and debating the enormously difficult and personal decision to live an openly gay life. It could be more than one. Based on the percentages, it has to be more than one.

It won't be long before we know who that is. A place in history is waiting for the first.

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