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Robbie Rogers pioneers movement

FOX Soccer News: Robbie Rogers seals move to MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy.
FOX Soccer News: Robbie Rogers seals move to MLS Cup champion LA Galaxy.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Equality for gays may well be the defining civil rights struggle of our age. And if you hold this to be true, Robbie Rogers has just become one of its leading combatants.

On Saturday afternoon, Rogers announced that he’d be returning to soccer with his hometown Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, who traded for his rights with Chicago Fire at a steep price. So ends the 26-year-old forward’s sojourn away from the sport. He resumes a singular career, whose arc began with a promising young player who underdelivered on the vast potential ascribed to him but nevertheless registered 18 appearances for his national team and was one of the last men cut from the U.S.’s 2010 World Cup roster. By last February, however, a stint in the English leagues ended with his premature release, caused by frequent injuries, followed by a heartfelt message on his website, in which he announced both his sexuality and his retirement.

In spite of saying, soon after coming out, that he wouldn’t want to deal with the circus a return to the sport would induce, the itch and a sense of responsibility evidently crept up on him following the coming out of NBA player Jason Collins on April 29. Rogers returned to practice with the Galaxy as a “special guest” the following day and as rumors of a comeback warmed to a rolling boil, the prodigal son came good on his potential – both on the field and off.

His return is undoubtedly historic. But just how historic is a matter of semantics. You could argue that when he first takes the field for the Galaxy – which could be a few weeks away, given that Rogers was stagnant for 2 ½ months – he will be North America’s first active male professional athlete in a major team sport who is openly gay. Some will quarrel with the designation “major team sport.” Soccer doesn’t belong to the traditional “Big Four” of American sports – football, baseball, basketball and hockey. They will argue that when Collins next plays in the NBA – if the 34-year-old free agent ever does – he’ll be the first. You could counter that soccer is very much a major sport. The 2010 World Cup final averaged almost 25 million viewers in the United States, more than the average of the 2012 World Series, NBA Finals, Stanley Cup and NCAA men’s basketball final.

But that would all be to miss the point.

Some will try to place Rogers’ pioneering in perspective. You’ll hear Jackie Robinson’s name bandied about. Comparisons will be drawn to his breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. But they are incomparable cases. Both achievements are fantastically important in their own right. The battle for racial equality, however, took place in a different time and context and from a much more maligned starting point.

But then this argument, too, would miss the point.

It would serve Rogers and his cause well, many have argued, to perform on the field. Rogers undoubtedly has the talent, but he hasn’t yet made much of it. The Galaxy traded their leading goalscorer in Mike Magee to the Chicago Fire to acquire Rogers’ rights. To avoid the charge that he was a token hire, or a marketing ploy to help push replica jerseys in the post-Beckham era (Jason Collins jerseys flew off the shelves following his own coming-out) he’d better deliver, some say.

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This misses the point just as much.

Rogers and his return to professional sport as an openly gay athlete isn’t about who is first or whose barrier-breaking is the most historic or even how he performs – only the ignorant need be convinced of gay men’s equal adeptness at sport as straight men. What matters truly, and what makes this a watershed moment, is the advancement of a cause. This is about a great many athletes who until not terribly long ago felt like they couldn’t let on who they loved unless they had retired or were about to – and even then it was a gutsy thing to go.

This is about normalizing the open presence of a heretofore hushed minority and deeming it okay. This isn’t strictly about the sport itself, or even for the most part about the sport. Rather, it's about how Rogers is received by teammates, opponents and fans on both sides. This is about precedents and role models and acceptance, about vanquishing a taboo. This is about the right to be and live and marry and, yes, play sports without concealment or fear of unequal treatment.

The return of Robbie Rogers is about more than Robbie Rogers. It’s about the millions of Robbie Rogerses who don’t yet dare be that.

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