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An understated historic moment

Robbie Rogers becomes first openly gay male to play in a U.S. pro sports league but says, ‘It was just a soccer game.’

Robbie Rogers in 2009. (Ted S. Warren/AP File)
Robbie Rogers in 2009. (Ted S. Warren/AP File)Read more

IT FINALLY happened.

Sunday night on the outskirts of Los Angeles, Robbie Rogers walked onto the pitch for a Major League Soccer match between the LA Galaxy and Seattle Sounders FC and became the first verified psychic to play in a U.S. professional sports league.

Well, not really.

But Rogers did tell ESPN soccer analyst Alexis Lalas before the game that, "I'm just hoping we're up 4-0 so I can get in the game and enjoy myself," and that was exactly the score when Galaxy coach Bruce Arena subbed in Rogers for Juninho in the 77th minute.

That fish-your-wish moment was more interesting than Rogers actually becoming the first openly gay male to play in a U.S. professional sports league.

I stayed up late Sunday to watch the game on ESPN2. While I do enjoy soccer, I did so specifically to see if Rogers, a former United States national team member who left the game at age 25 when he came out in February, would make history. When Rogers did so by stepping on the pitch at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., it was blissfully anticlimactic.

Rogers, who grew up in nearby Santa Ana, Calif., received a strong ovation from the crowd of nearly 25,000, but it wasn't for the history-making moment but for another player who may be able to help the Galaxy win a third consecutive MLS title.

"OK, this is just a soccer game, I've done this a million times," Rogers said, recanting some of the thoughts running through his head. "But then obviously I know, I'm not naive, I know people are watching.

"I guess it was a historic thing, but for me it was just a soccer game."

And that's just the way it hopefully will be for Rogers from now on and for any other athlete who deems it is time for him/her to come out.

Once the first domino falls, the others come down much easier.

This was historic only in the sense that Rogers is the first. I disagree with those who want to make this comparable to Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League Baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947. There is no unwritten rule against a gay athlete playing a professional sport like there was against African-Americans playing Major League Baseball.

And the United States of Robinson's time was far less tolerant of social change than the United States of today.

Robinson could not hide.

Rogers played in 106 MLS games, and 18 with the United States national team, as a gay man before he played his first as an "openly" gay man. Most of us would not know had he not decided to tell us.

Unlike Robinson, Rogers was never going to have to face the fact that teammates would insinuate they would not play rather than play alongside him.

With MLS pushing its "Cross the Line" public-service campaign, which promotes unity, respect, fair play, equality and acceptance, there is no chance the league will allow Rogers to suffer the indignities Robinson endured from some opposing players and fans.

FIFA, soccer's world-wide governing body, is cracking down hard on racism, sexism and intolerance, and clubs are being penalized for the behavior of their fans.

But as far as we still have to go in America in terms of ensuring the legal rights of gays and lesbians, the overall social climate has improved dramatically.

I'm not naïve enough to believe that acts of intolerance, intimidation and violence do not still happen against the LGBT community, but being viewed as tolerant has become more socially accepted than being viewed as intolerant. If for no other reason than fear of backlash, people who may have once openly tried to react against Rogers are now more likely to rage internally or protest anonymously.

At this point, with the momentum gained from NBA player Jason Collins coming out and Rogers returning to the game, I can't imagine one MLS player being stupid enough to retaliate against Rogers on the pitch or publicly protest against his presence.

All of that is good. It's good that we've evolved somewhat as a society in the past 66 years. No athlete should ever again have to endure the abuse and hardships people like Robinson, Larry Doby and other African-American pioneers went through simply because they wanted to play to the highest level their abilities would take them.

I'm not saying it is easy for Rogers or any gay athlete, but there is more support now than there ever has been before.

"Because of the nature of the way sports has been for so many years - the macho culture that's been embraced by everybody, it's of interest to everybody," Galaxy teammate Landon Donovan said of Rogers' debut. "Now, hopefully, the hype about it is over and he can get back to being a soccer player, which is what he wants to do."

The encouraging thing is that the beginning was primarily about Rogers as a soccer player, not a gay soccer player.

The postgame analysis was mainly about the quality of Rogers' play and his fitness and whether the Galaxy's trade of its leading scorer, Mike Magee, to the Chicago Fire for the rights to Rogers will pay off.

According to reports, there was not much more of a media presence than for a normal Galaxy match. There was no carnival atmosphere, no hype, just a soccer player returning to the field.

When Rogers came out in February, he spoke of the trauma of having to tell his family that he is gay. He talked of soccer being "my escape, my purpose, my identity. Football hid my secret, gave me more joy than I could have ever imagined."

At least until he returned on Sunday.

"It was really perfect," he said. "We won, which is most important. My family was here.

"I've kind of been on this huge journey trying to figure out my life. And now, I'm back here. I think I'm where I'm supposed to be."