When Jason Collins came out on Monday, the major reason it was a media-dominating news event was that he became the first active male player in the four major American professional leagues to publicly identify as gay while still playing the game. Although Collins is no longer under contract with an NBA team, he appears to still consider himself a professional basketball player, meaning he’ll seek employment again next season; if he’ll get his wish remains to be seen, but it’s far from inconceivable.
However, whether Collins plays in the NBA or not in 2013-14, he may get beaten to the punch as far as being the first openly gay male athlete to play professional sports — if we include the MLS. And we should: At this point, the MLS is the third-most attended sport in the U.S., ahead of both the NBA and the NHL. (Of course, this isn’t a one-to-one comparison; the Seattle Sounders average in attendance double what most NBA stadiums can hold at maximum capacity.)
On Feb. 15, Robbie Rogers, a speedy winger who had played 18 games for the U.S. Men’s National Team as well as stints in the top Dutch league, MLS, and Britain’s second-highest league, abruptly came out as gay and retired from soccer. Because Rogers both played in Europe at the time and announced his coming out in tandem with his retirement, the news didn’t carry the same weight as it might have had he been an active member of an American sports league pledging to remain active now that his sexual orientation was public. That being said, it still made an imprint on both the American and European sports communities, and the American national side lost a player who would have been in the mix for the team.
But Rogers’ retirement, which he couched in terms of needing to put personal concerns over soccer for the first time in his life — very understandable — appears to be over. One of the countless fascinating details of the saga surrounding Jason Collins’ public coming-out was an anecdote in cowriter Franz Lidz’s follow-up the day after: “‘But some people would put soccer up there too, and Robbie Rogers has already blazed a trail there,’ [Collins said.] … The recently retired and now recently unretired Rogers, who phoned Collins yesterday while driving to a Los Angeles Galaxy tryout, said, ‘It feels a little weird to congratulate you for being honest.’
That was the first anyone had heard of Rogers’ unretirement — a scoop within a scoop — and on Wednesday, the news was confirmed: Rogers is training with the Galaxy.
Unlike Collins, who has reached the tail end of his career even if he does play this upcoming season, Rogers is an incredibly talented player who, age-wise, should be in his prime, with experience both overseas and in international competition. If Rogers decides he’s playing this year, the obstacles to his return are more logistical than physical — the Chicago Fire hold his rights, and their coach says they are interested in adding him. If he would rather play in Los Angeles or with his former coach in Seattle, a trade will have to be worked out.
The MLS season is already in flow, meaning that Rogers could be playing professional soccer as soon as 1) he decides he wants to be playing professional soccer, 2) his contract situation is resolved, and 3) he gets into game shape. Either way, he’s got a long time before Jason Collins’ next chance to play basketball, which is October 2013. Portraying this as some sort of race would be delusional, but it’s impossible not to note that Rogers has one quality that Collins does not: the potential for athletic impact still ahead of him. And in that way, he could prove to be just as influential as Collins has been, is, and will be forever.
Both the LGBT and soccer communities could benefit hugely from Robbie Rogers, in what he’d mean as an example to younger athletes both gay and straight, as a symbol of cultural acceptance, and as an attractive, marketable, visible young player. The main issue at stake now — and the most important — is for Robbie Rogers to decide that this is the right move for him.