Milestone for Gay Athletes as Rogers Plays for Galaxy
CARSON, Calif. — When Robbie Rogers stepped on the field late Sunday night as a substitute for the Los Angeles Galaxy, it was familiar turf. He trained on the field as a youth when it opened more than a decade ago. It is where he helped the Columbus Crew win an M.L.S. Cup title.
But even Rogers knew that when he took those first few steps between the white lines, he was breaking new ground as the first openly gay man to participate in a prominent North American pro league.
The best thing about that, Rogers said after playing the final 13, stress-free minutes of the Galaxy’s 4-0 victory over Seattle, is how normal it felt.
“I keep saying the word normal, normal, but it was,” Rogers, 26, said. “It was just good to be back. I’m excited to move on from here.”
The anxiety about being out and an athlete, which led him to announce that he was stepping away from the game when he disclosed in February that he was gay, had taken great effort to dismiss in recent months.
His agent had subtly encouraged him to return, as did others he knew in the game, including — with serendipity — the coach for Seattle, Sigi Schmid, whom Rogers has known since he was 7 years old. Rogers played youth soccer with Schmid’s son, Kurt.
Rogers said he had received courage from speaking with teenagers who had come out. As he milled around his apartment late Sunday afternoon, wiling away the hours before he would leave for the stadium, the edginess began to resurface. So on the drive to work, he phoned his older sister, Alicia.
“I just needed to hear someone’s voice,” he said. “We were talking about my dog, just to kind of get my mind off things. I guess part of me was just afraid. I understand that historically this is a big thing. But for me, it’s just another soccer game.
“So I was kind of battling with both of those things. ‘O.K., this is a soccer game. I’ve done this a million times.’ But then obviously I know, I’m not naïve, I know people are watching.”
The playing time for Rogers on Sunday was the latest step in disassembling what is often referred to as society’s last closet. From pioneers like the former N.F.L. player Dave Kopay to more recent ones like the basketball player John Amaechi, men in team sports have been fearful that coming out would force them to end their careers. But momentum has gathered, as it has for other gay rights, and last month the N.B.A. player Jason Collins announced that he was gay.
But Collins, a free agent, will not be able to play until next season, and he will have to find a team to sign with. His announcement was greeted with great fanfare.
As a result, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the environment Sunday night was how unremarkable it was.
The crowd was typical — close to capacity, but still with room to seat several thousand more. The news media turnout was nearly normal — no local columnists and scant national presence. Only the presence of the celebrity and gossip Web site OMG appeared out of place at a soccer match. There were no discernible signs of support (or dissent) for Rogers until he stepped on the field.
To some, an M.L.S. public service announcement that flashed along the stadium signage boards may have carried more resonance on this night: “Unity. Equality. Acceptance. Respect for Fair Play. Don’t Cross the Line.”
“We were talking about it earlier: this is a historic night, kind of like Jackie Robinson,” Vince Grant, a Galaxy fan, said as he enjoyed a pregame beer and meal with his uncle Mike Callahan and a friend, Aaron Rice.
But for a number of Galaxy fans, there seems to be less concern with the historical implications than how the acquisition of Rogers cost Los Angeles its leading scorer, Mike Magee. He was traded to Chicago, which held the rights to Rogers. The defending two-time champion Galaxy have had a middling start to the season, starting the night fifth in the Western Conference.
And for all the team’s star power in recent years — Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Omar Gonzalez and David Beckham — there was lament among fans about losing Magee, who had scored six goals in the last 10 playoff games and had also cemented his cult hero status by filling in at goalie last season when the Galaxy lost its two keepers to injury and a red card.
“I’m hoping Robbie Rogers lives up to the hype,” said Nadia Sandoval, a member of the Riot Squad, a group of fans that once taunted Beckham for trying to bolt to Italy. “But there’s mixed feeling. We take our football very seriously here, and Magee was like family.”
So popular was Magee that some fans expected Rogers to be booed.
As it turned out, there was little for anyone to grumble out. Not with the Galaxy jumping to a 4-0 lead behind a first-half hat trick from Keane. By the time Rogers arrived at midfield to be subbed in, he received a polite and encouraging ovation.
He jogged to his spot on the left side of the midfield and was beaten to a ball in the air. His first touch was clean, but he mostly just ran around, breaking a sweat as he broke ground. It was his first match since playing in England in December.
“In a lot of ways, the easy part is over,” Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said. “Now the difficult part remains, getting him positioned to play, and that’s going to take some time.”
When the final whistle blew, Rogers milled around, just another player shaking hands with players, coaches and referees. He looked less like a trail blazer than a teammate.
“It was really perfect,” Rogers said. “We won, which is most important. My family was here, my friends. My grandparents. I’ve kind of been on this huge journey trying to figure out my life. And now I’m back here. I think kind of where I’m supposed to be.”