NBA free agent Jason Collins was the first active male athlete in American professional sports to announce that he is gay. Collins was justifiably treated as a groundbreaking figure in the civil rights of gay people. While Collins’ story was a drastic step in the right direction, he won’t actually be the first openly gay athlete to play in his particular sport.
That specific honor goes to Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Robbie Rogers.
Rogers has gained a spot on Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena’s 18-man roster this weekend, making him eligible to play in tonight’s game.
The Galaxy must see something in Rogers, as they traded one of their premier goal scorers and fan favorites – Mike Magee – for Rogers’ Chicago Fire contract. The freshly unretired Rogers will be a key factor in the Galaxy’s run towards a third straight MLS Cup title, and will be featured in the large pool of players eligible to be selected for the U.S. Men’s National Soccer team. (He already has 18 caps with the U.S. national team.)
Rogers retired from soccer after announcing his sexuality in February. The 26-year-old Rogers, isn’t old or washed up, he just didn’t know if he could continue to play professional soccer while also being openly gay.
Rogers said that after speaking to a conference of LGBT youths, he changed his mind about retirement and decided to make a comeback.
“I seriously felt like a coward,” Rogers told USA TODAY Sports. “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?”
Rogers wrote in his coming-out blog post that after he came out, he literally felt the weight lift off of him.
“Life is simple when your secret is gone. Gone is the pain that lurks in the stomach at work, the pain from avoiding questions. … Secrets can cause so much internal damage. … Try convincing yourself that your creator has the most wonderful purpose for you even though you were taught differently.
“Honesty is a bitch but makes life so simple and clear. My secret is gone, I am a free man. I can move on and live my life as my creator intended.”
Collins and Rogers will be role models to any troubled or confused youth who struggles with their identity. They, as Martina Navratilova wrote in the Jason Collins issue of Sports Illustrated, can save lives.
“It’s only when you come out that you can be exactly who you are,” Navratilova wrote. “Collins’ action will save lives. This is no exaggeration: Fully one third of suicides among teenagers occur because of their sexuality.”
While Rogers’ story didn’t beat Collins in publicity or in media coverage, its impact can be the same. If either athlete’s story can help anyone – young or old – accept who they are and make it potentially easier for someone to be an openly gay athlete, then it will have been the right decision.
“Millions of kids will see that it is OK to be gay. No need for shame, no need for embarrassment, no need for hiding,” Navratilova wrote.
Rogers’ Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan – who returned from his own mini-retirement of a different sort earlier this year – told the New York Times that what Rogers has done is already a success.
“Everybody wants it to go a certain way on the field, but in my opinion it’s already a success whether he plays 1 minute or 1,000 minutes or 10,000 minutes,” Donovan said. “It’s already a big step in the right direction for our society as a whole. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Rogers cited Jason Collins and the movie “42,” the Jackie Robinson story, as influences in his decision to come out of the closet and subsequently return to soccer. While they were met with mostly positive support, rather than come out in a climate of bigotry like Robinson’s, they can be seen as pioneer athletes in what has become the biggest civil rights issue of the 21st century. Rogers and Collins have gained praise and accolades from the professional sports community. And while there are still a few ignoramuses lurking in the public eye, Rogers will be applauded when he takes the field, not jeered.
After Rogers finally came out and then decided to return to soccer, his anxiety had vanished.
“Oh, my gosh, so much easier,” Rogers told the New York Times, saying that his life has completely changed for the better. “That’s the No. 1 lesson of all this. I don’t know what I was so worried about.”