While many in the media are falling over themselves to proclaim Robbie Rogers the first openly gay American male professional team-sport athlete... he is not. That distinction belongs to Andrew Goldstein, who played for two teams in Major League Lacrosse in 2005 and 2006.
Rogers is, no doubt, the first publicly out player in Major League Soccer. You could even say he's the first in the "Big Five" sports, if you count MLS along with the NFL, NHL, MLB and NBA. But most either don't remember Goldstein or just weren't paying attention to gay-sports issues in 2005 when his story hit the airwaves.
Outsports and ESPN reported on Goldstein heavily when he was the goalie for the Dartmouth College lacrosse team. Goldstein was a rare talent. He is one of the very few NCAA Div. 1 goalies to ever score a goal in tournament play. To go coast-to-coast in an NCAA tournament game as a goalie takes heart, courage and chutzpah; That was Andrew Goldstein, the true first openly gay male in American pro team sports.
What's incredible is that Goldstein didn't just come out in the pros, he came out in college and was drafted -- as an openly gay athlete -- eight years ago. The idea that professional sports teams didn't want an out gay athlete was shattered by Goldstein and MLL when George W. Bush was just starting his second term.
Some may pooh-pooh Goldstein's distinction, but they are out of touch. Lacrosse is a more masculine sport than soccer in the United States and thus harder for an out gay athlete to break into. The "lax-bro" culture is alive and well, akin to the surf culture that keeps gay athletes at bay and more deeply homophobic, believe it or not, than the culture that dominates American football.
When I caught up with Goldstein this weekend in Los Angeles, where he now lives with his partner, he shared with me his distaste for labels for all of the athletes who have come out publicly.
"You see people trying to qualify all of these actions," Goldstein said. "'Well, Jason [Collins] is technically not on an active roster, and well, Robbie [Rogers] isn't in one of the major sports.' To me the importance isn't how historic the moment is. The importance is that we're having this conversations. There are more people now who know it's okay to be openly gay at the highest level of your sport. So it's not important how we can qualify the moment, the important thing is that it will lead to less bullying and less suicide and less pain."
While Goldstein may differ, you can tell the reduced significance of Robbie Rogers' historic moment by how the media covered it. ESPN and Sports Illustrated didn't highlight it but threw it in with the rest of their news stories, nothing out of the ordinary. Yahoo! and CBS Sports did the same, while Outsports' parent company, SB Nation, did have Rogers as their lead story this morning.
The fact is, Rogers' appearance in an MLS game didn't change much. There are so many reasons for that. First, it's soccer, which simply doesn't have the gravitas in our culture that football, baseball and basketball have. Second, MLS is the junior cousin of the world's soccer; Rogers couldn't get a foot-hold in European soccer, yet he's traded for a team's leading scorer in MLS. That tells you all you need to know about the place MLS holds on the world stage. Third, he just wasn't stealing the ball from Dwyane Wade or catching touchdowns from Tom Brady. It was nice and all, it just wasn't earth-shattering. Fourth, professional athletes coming out of the closet are desperately behind the times. People talk about the gay Jackie Robinson? No. They missed their moment. Goldstein was the closest we'll ever get, coming out publicly when the future of LGBT equality was in the balance. Today? It's nearly a done deal with a dozen states already legalizing same-sex marriage. Fifth, while the public did not know David Testo was gay, the Montreal Impact did when they signed him in 2007. That is significant.
And sixth? Someone came before Rogers. While this was breaking new ground for Major League Soccer, it wasn't new ground for America pro team sports; Soccer simply isn't football, baseball, basketball or hockey. And Los Angeles in 2013 simply doesn't have the homophobic potential that Long Island in 2006 held. Rogers' appearance in an MLS game last night was a significant step. But it was another step in the march toward equality, not the first.
Regardless of the significance of Rogers taking the pitch on Sunday, Goldstein applauds his courage and willingness to stand out in the crowd.
"People are afraid to be different and to put themselves out there," Goldstein said. "Especially professional athletes. You don't know how long your career is going to be, so you don't want to piss off the wrong person. In general, people in our society are afraid to be different. But once we dare to be different, we see it's just fine."
It's a lesson Goldstein learned eight years ago. Jason Collins and Rogers learned that lesson this year. The faster others can learn Goldstein's lesson, the faster we can all get over the "first" declarations for LGBT athletes and just let them be athletes.