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Last week's coming-out announcement by Jason Collins was a watershed moment in American sports history, one that will no doubt have a ripple effect in the country's athletic culture. In addition to taking calls from President Obama and Oprah Winfrey, Collins heard from Robbie Rogers, the U.S. soccer player who stepped away from the game in February after coming out at age 25. "It feels a little weird to congratulate you for being honest," said Rogers, who was on his way to a training session with the MLS champion Los Angeles Galaxy when he spoke to Collins on April 22.
In fact, it's increasingly likely that Rogers will see game action as an openly gay athlete before Collins has a chance to do so in October. Though Rogers said last week he was just practicing with the Galaxy, he has opened the door wider and wider to a return. On Sunday he told ESPN radio in Dallas "there's a really good chance" he'd return to the field this season. From an on-the-field perspective it would make sense. A speedy winger who's in the prime of his career, Rogers has played 18 times for the U.S. national team—he scored against Mexico in Jurgen Klinsmann's 2011 coaching debut—and won an MLS title in '08 with Columbus.
What's more, MLS is the kind of progressive league that would welcome a trailblazing athlete like Rogers. In an SI.com poll after the Collins story broke last week, MLS was perceived as the male pro sports league that would be the most tolerant of gay athletes (see results, next page). And when I surveyed 18 MLS players in February, all but one said a gay player would be accepted in their team's locker room. "There are probably a couple in there right now, so yeah," one player told me.
No sports league is a resistance-free zone, of course, and in the past year, three MLS players were caught on camera using antigay slurs during games. But the league has been consistent in its punishments, issuing three-game suspensions in each case, and MLS's Don't Cross the Line antidiscrimination campaign has enlisted some of the league's top stars, including Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan to appear in TV spots. As for MLS fans, the supporters groups in Seattle, Portland and Toronto are some of the most passionate in any North American sport, but it would be hard to envision Rogers's facing any sort of organized negative response.
That probably wouldn't be the case in English soccer, which is viewed as far less open-minded than U.S. sports. When striker Justin Fashanu became the first—and still only—prominent English soccer player to come out, in 1990, he was the target of abuse from fans, fellow players and even his brother, also a soccer pro, who publicly disowned him. (Fashanu committed suicide in 1998 after being accused of sexual assault by a 17-year-old Maryland man.) John Amaechi, the English basketball player who came out after retiring from the NBA, has spoken to Collins as well as several closeted Premier League soccer players, and he told the Associated Press that "the NBA is light years ahead of [English] football."
It's no coincidence that Rogers is considering a return to the field now that he has come back to the U.S. from England, where he played for Leeds United and Stevenage in 2012. There would be no shortage of MLS teams interested in signing him—coaches such as L.A.'s Bruce Arena, Seattle's Sigi Schmid and Chicago's Frank Klopas said as much last week. (The Fire owns his MLS rights, so if another domestic club wanted Rogers, it would have to make a deal with Chicago.) Rogers has received strong public support from the U.S. soccer community, including his fellow players, and he says he has been pleasantly surprised by the positive nature of the response.
One of the most striking aspects of Rogers's story is the evolution of his public stance, which has gone from an unwillingness to do any media interviews when he came out three months ago to embracing the chance to be seen as a symbol for change in the sports world. Rogers allowed cameras from ABC's Nightline to witness his reunion with his conservative Catholic family in California, and he has been in talks with producers about turning his story into a documentary film project.
As Collins himself noted last week, there's plenty of room for multiple pioneers when it comes to being a gay professional athlete. If Rogers does decide to return to professional soccer this summer, he appears ready to play a central role.