Saturday, June 8, 2013


Dear Spike,

Today was my birthday, and I couldn't really imagine a better way to spend it than to take in a soccer game along with you and your mother. All the better, we were there together to see something historic.

Well, sort of.  

It actually took me a moment to realize what was happening as the announcer called out the name of the player who was sprinting onto the field in the 71st minute of a 1-1 game. And if too many other people noticed, they didn't make much of a fuss.

There were, as there always are, some boos. That's what soccer fans do when an opposing team's player comes in as a substitution. We boo. We whistle. We hiss. Sometimes we throw things. It really just depends on the situation.

But there was also a smattering of cheers (and not just from the small number of LA Galaxy fans who were seated in the upper deck.) And that's really not something that soccer fans do when an opposing team's player comes in as a substitution. No, we don't. We boo. We whistle. We hiss. Sometimes we throw small incendiary devices.

When I realized who had taken the pitch, though, I stood and cheered, too. And you looked up at me with a sort of do-you-know-what-you're-doing-right-now kind of bewilderment.

I did know.

I was cheering for an opposing team's player.

I was cheering for the first openly gay athlete in a men's professional team sport.

On May 26, Robbie Rogers played his first game since coming out of a short-lived retirement — during which he'd formally acknowledged his homosexuality. In the intervening two weeks, he's come in as a substitute in two more games.

This was his fourth game since coming out.

To put this in historical context, this was a bit like watching Jackie Robinson play in the spring of 1947, when "The Colored Comet" (no, really, that's what they called him when he was playing for the Montreal Royals of the also regretfully named "Negro Leagues") became the first African American player in the modern era of Major League Baseball.

Except, this wasn't like that at all.

You'll likely learn about Robinson in school — and if you don't, I'll teach you, because it's important. You'll learn about how hated he was. You'll learn about the death threats from fans. The booing and racist name-calling. How other players would spit at him and call him names as he rounded the bases. How the Brooklyn Dodgers had to deal with racist fans who threatened never to buy a ticket again.

Nothing like that happened to Rogers. In every game he's played since he has been back, he's been welcomed warmly onto the field, or at least as warmly as any opposing player ever is. There have been, so far, no publicized incidents of name calling or threats. No one has cancelled their season tickets.

Rogers's historic return to soccer has been, by and large, completely uneventful.

But that doesn't make it unimportant. Not even in comparison to Jackie Robinson's feat. Because, remember, Robinson didn't have a choice to be black. He just was. And when a rich, white club owner named Branch Rickey gave him a chance, he took it. He took it and he hit it out of the park. And we're all better for it.

But that was 66 very long years ago.

There have, of course, been plenty of gay men in professional sports since then. They have had partners and families. They have had lives that they likely would have preferred to have lived in the open, were it possible that they could do so in peace.

And they had a choice to remain hidden. And given the perceived consequences of making the choice to come out of the closet, they stayed inside. For 66 years after a black man bravely ventured onto a major league ball field, fear continued to keep openly gay men from following him.

Until Rogers.

There are those, no doubt, who will say that the relative lack of attention — and particularly the lack of backlash — Rogers has received relegates his action to something of a non-event. Clearly, it now seems obvious, it could have happened even sooner.

Yes, it should have happened sooner. But I would say the relative lack of attention makes it a great event. A historic event. An event that we all get to share, proudly — because our society is better than it was in 1947 and over the past few weeks we got to prove it. Together.

Rogers didn't make much of a difference in the game tonight. Shortly after he came onto the pitch, Real Salt Lake's Olmes Garcia scored the go-ahead goal. And just for good measure, Garcia put another one in a few minutes later. We sang and danced and cheered for the home team.

That brought Real to 8-5-3 for the seasons — and 5-1-1 in the past seven games. If they keep this up, they'll make the playoffs with no problem. The Galaxy, at 6-6-2, have a little more work ahead of them, but they're perpetual contenders. They'll likely be there, too.

And when that game is played at The RioT, we'll be there.

And when Rogers comes onto the field, we're gonna boo.

We're gonna whistle. We're gonna hiss. We might even throw something.

Not because of who he is, but because of who we are.

We're soccer fans. And when we hate people, it's for absolutely no reason at all.