For 76 minutes and 35 seconds, Sunday night’s contest between the Los Angeles Galaxy and Seattle Sounders was nothing if not normal, a mid-season clash between two teams vying for a playoff spot in Major League Soccer’s Western Conference. The Galaxy by that point had secured the win, thanks to three goals and an assist from forward Robbie Keane, whose 44th minute penalty kick put Los Angeles ahead 4-0. The last 15 minutes seemed to promise little more than a slog across the 90 minute finish line.
That’s when Robbie Rogers rose to the sideline, and when an early summer match turned into a historic moment in American sports.
When Rogers took the pitch, replacing midfielder Juninho, he became the first openly gay male to ever appear in a game in one of America’s major sports—and for those doubting soccer’s status as a major American sport, the average crowd for an MLS match is larger than those in both the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association.
The moment couldn’t be overstated. Not for Rogers, a man who spent his closeted years “living all that time with just a cramp in your stomach,” hoping he didn’t “do something that makes people wonder, is Robbie gay?” Not for Rogers, a man who retired when he finally came out in February, at age 25, in a blog post on his personal web site because didn’t “want to deal with the circus” of being the first openly gay player, because he didn’t want to face questions from the media or taunts from the fans. Neither could it be overstated for a gay community that has waited for this moment for so long, for a sports world that has moved, if belatedly, to make itself a more open and tolerant place for LGBT players and fans. But he unretired and announced that he’d signed with the Galaxy on Saturday, and made history just a day later.
“What a moment for number 14,” ESPN’s announcer proclaimed as Rogers entered the pitch to a standing ovation from the 24,811 Galaxy faithful, a smile plastered across his face.
But for all the talk about sexuality and milestones, the most significant fact of the night was how quickly the conversation turned back to soccer. The moment was “head-spinning,” Rogers told ESPN, but the remainder of his interview with the network focused more on his fitness after nearly six months off the pitch. The moment was “inspiring in that it’s OK to be who we are,” Galaxy star Landon Donovan said afterward, but not before stressing that in Rogers, the team was “getting a guy who’s been very effective in this league and we’re really excited to have him.” For Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who relinquished his leading goalscorer mid-season to acquire Rogers from the Chicago Fire, the moment Sunday was “in a lot of ways, the easy part.”
“Now the difficult part remains,” Arena said, according to the New York Times. “Getting him positioned to play, and that’s going to take some time.”
That must be refreshing to Rogers, who feared in February that the reaction would focus more on his sexuality than his soccer no matter what he did on the field. “Are people coming to see you because you’re gay?” he wondered aloud to The Guardian. “Would I want to do interviews every day, where people are asking: ‘So you’re taking showers with guys – how’s that?’ If you’re playing well it will be reported as: ‘The gay footballer is playing well.’ And if you have a bad game it’ll be: ‘Aw, that gay dude … he’s struggling because he’s gay.’…I don’t want to mess with that.”
That isn’t to say it will be smooth-sailing and nothing-but-soccer from here. There are still potential hurdles looming, from opposing fans who try to get in Rogers’ head, to players who aren’t yet comfortable with the idea of an openly gay man taking the pitch alongside them. And there will still be a time for more focus on his sexuality than on his soccer, a time where he will be expected to be an advocate for LGBT issues in both sports and society, a time where he will be asked to help other gay athletes make the same decision he made.
Right now, though, the significance of Robbie Rogers is that he came back, that a man who not so long ago struggled with who he is was able to find comfort and satisfaction in himself and return to the game he loves so much. That may be Rogers’ most powerful form of advocacy, the biggest punch in the gut to the ridiculous idea that someone like him or Jason Collins should live in the shadows to avoid being a distraction or a problem, that a gay player should worry about what fans will say instead of taking the field in defiance of those that would have a problem with him. By just being a footballer, Rogers will make it easier for other gay athletes to just be athletes, and open ones, too.
And so, with a smile on his face, Rogers jogged to his position and immediately leaped to head a free kick. Six months-worth of rust showing, he didn’t come all that close to winning it. Still, the game was underway. And Robbie Rogers was a part of it.