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Soccer helped pave way for Collins

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Robbie Rogers and David Testo helped pave the way for Jason Collins.
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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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NEW YORK, NEW YORK

In some ways, soccer is a bastion of hatred and chauvinism. In others, it is a beacon of progress and acceptance.

For all the racism and corruption and violence that we have seen in the world’s favorite game, soccer in North America has been a trailblazer in one respect: the sport has been welcoming to openly gay players. And in that regard, it helped prepare the land for NBA player Jason Collins’ historic coming-out on Monday.

More and more athletes in other sports – most notably football and basketball – have recently made noises about embracing any teammate or opponent who might come out. But soccer was the only real precedent available to Collins. Soccer was the only professional team sport in North America that had seen an active player come out.

In November 2011, David Testo, a minor league soccer player in Montreal, came out of the closet in an emotional interview with Radio Canada. In February 2013, he was followed by Robbie Rogers, a sometime U.S. national team player who had just been released by his second-tier English club Leeds United, who outed himself in a heartfelt message on his website. Upon their public announcements, both found themselves awash in support and acceptance. For the sprinkling of negative backlash, there was a flood of congratulations and encouragement.

“He [Collins] probably did his research and saw that when we came out the response was overwhelmingly positive,” Testo tells FOX. “It’s an awesome thing that I couldn’t be any prouder of. Nor could I be happier with my own decision if it helped even the slightest bit [in Collins coming out.]”

In the cruel business of soccer, where players, coaches and other operators are hard-wired to favor self-preservation over transparency and principle and absolutely no topic is off-limits to the fans if it represents fodder that may unsettle opponents, there was acceptance of Justin Fashanu as well. The Englishman came out in a splashy tabloid cover story in 1990, making him the first openly gay active male professional athlete in a team sport - ever. Fashanu was taunted by fans and, at times, his own manager Brian Clough. (The legendary coach famously asked him why, when Fashanu went to a baker for bread and a butcher for a leg of lamb, he would go to a gay club for sex.) Yet his place in the game was never in dispute. At the time, this was a victory of sorts as well.

On the women’s side, recent U.S. national team coach Pia Sundhage was openly gay and her sexuality was scarcely ever mentioned. And when star player Megan Rapinoe came out on the eve of the 2012 Summer Olympics, which she helped the U.S. win, it only seemed to make her more popular.

We don’t know that Collins researched how athletes in other sports fared after coming out. He might not have known about North American soccer’s progressive stance, or taken comfort in how it welcomed gay players. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that if there had been any kind of overwhelming backlash in North American soccer to the coming-out of its gay pioneers, Collins would have probably heard about it. And as a cautionary tale, such ugliness might well have given him pause and caused him to re-think going public with his own sexuality.

But where soccer may have enabled him, whether he’s conscious of it or not, Collins now has a chance to push the boundary out further. Because for all the positivity Testo and Rogers were met with upon coming out, neither of them kept playing. Testo, 30 at the time, was willing but uninterested by the few options that materialized, for reasons various and sundry, even though he had a strong track record in the game. And Rogers immediately retired, even though he had the talent and capacity, at age 25, to continue, in spite of a rash of recent injuries.

“It seems like he’s in one of those transition points between being active and retiring – kind of the same place Robbie and I were in,” says Testo. “But it could be a monumental day for sports if he does come back and play.”

“I really hope he continues to play and makes a really, really big statement and we can keep moving forward in the direction of making this stigma [against homosexuality] in professional sports a thing of the past,” Testo says.

Rogers, too, is conscious of the momentum being built, as the issue continues to gain attention and urgency and traction. “I feel a movement coming,” he tweeted following Collins’ announcement.

“We’re all a part of a collective energy moving towards acceptance and people coming out, getting rid of the stereotype that a gay man can’t be as good as a macho straight man at a sport,” says Testo. “It’s really kind of the last genre and area in North America and the world that’s not openly accepted.”

Collins’ contribution would be amplified by his finding a team that will take him on next season. And deciding that any strife he might face is a worthwhile nuisance for the progress it would represent in our national sporting culture. “How big a wave this will be is really up to him,” says Testo. “If anybody will sign him in spite of his baggage – that’s really to be seen.” Collins, 34, indicated in his coming-out interview that he intends to keep playing. But the dizzying whirl of attention that will close in on him over the coming months might yet change his mind.

Where soccer provided the assist, Collins can achieve the larger goal. But it won’t count unless he actually plays in another professional basketball game.

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