The Jackie Robinson Moment

The world of soccer paused last week when US National Men’s Team player Robbie Rogers simultaneously came out and retired, leaving many to ask when we would see the first openly gay player at that level.

I think it would take three things, and only maybe one is in play at this time.

Apart from bread dough, things do not happen overnight. Most sudden changes take place Robbie-Rogers-USMNT-542x390slowly. Psy released “Gangnam Style” on his sixth album. For that matter, Los del Río, of “La Macarena” fame had been working for 32 years when they “suddenly” went big.
When I think about Robbie Rogers and the gay soccer professional barrier I am reminded of other famous firsts. Jackie Robinson officially broke the Major League baseball color line, but there were many who almost did it before him. Larry Doby quickly followed in the American League, while Josh Gibson, a player in the Negro Leagues who was better than either, never made it.

Rosa Parks is a name we all know for her courageous stand against an unfair law. I don’t think any of us believes she was the first African-American to stand up to authority, or to be arrested for her refusal. Why did her decision on that day on December 1, 1955 become historic while previous conflicts did not?

This is a problem with how we teach (or learn history). On a certain date, something happened for the first time. We memorize the date, if we’re lucky and believe ourselves to be good students. But history doesn’t happen in click-shifts and tipping points. Things change imperceptibly day by day until one day something that had not happened previously occurs, and the forces that would stifle that change are not successful. I think it has to be a combination of times being right and circumstance. The three things.

The first is money.

Jackie Robinson’s first manager, Leo Durocher said: “I do not care if the guy is yellow or black, or if he has stripes like a fuckin’ zebra. I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”

The Brooklyn Dodgers won five pennants in their history. Four were with Robinson on the team: 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953. (The one they captured without him was 1941.)
And it wasn’t just the Dodgers picking up championship checks that drove the experiment. From Sports Illustrated : “Although Robinson received threats, hate mail and racist comments from opposing dugouts, and teams constantly threw at his head and tried to spike him on the bases, baseball fans of all races were enthralled. All seven of the other National League teams drew their largest crowds of 1947 when Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers were in town, including a National League high of 52,355 at the Polo Grounds on April 19. Somehow Wrigley Field, with a baseball capacity of less than 40,000, squeezed in 46,572 fans for the Dodgers’ first visit to Chicago on May 18.

“Robinson was making more than just the Dodgers rich.”

Steve Sailer, another historian notes, “During each pre-season alone, Robinson earned his annual salary from the huge Southern crowds, black and white, that turned out to cheer and boo him at Dodger exhibitions. (By barnstorming through Dixie, Rickey was exposing Robinson to a real threat of assassination, as well as the insults of Jim Crow, but, hey, the money was too good to pass up.)”

During each pre-season alone, Robinson earned his annual salary from the huge Southern crowds, black and white, that turned out to cheer and boo him at Dodger exhibitions.

During each pre-season alone, Robinson earned his annual salary from the huge Southern crowds, black and white, that turned out to cheer and boo him at Dodger exhibitions.

When Rosa Parks was arrested, we recall that it resulted in a boycott against the bus companies that discriminated against African-Americans. From Wikipedia, “Rosa’s court case was being slowed down in appeals through the Alabama courts on their way to a Federal appeal and the process could have taken years. Holding together a boycott for that length of time would have been a great strain. In the end, black residents of Montgomery continued the boycott for 381 days, at considerable personal sacrifice. Dozens of public buses stood idle for months, severely damaging the bus transit company’s finances, until the city repealed its law requiring segregation on public buses following the US Supreme Court ruling [ . . .] that it was unconstitutional.”

Robbie Rogers doesn’t have enough financial leverage to be the player who pushes this change through today. Baseball had its Negro league, full of outstanding talent who could help a Major League team, and taking the chance on breaking the color line promised financial payoff. Robinson won Rookie of the Year on his debut, Rogers is good but simply not at that level.

Until a gay soccer player can be the equivalent of Rookie of the Year, a Drogba or a Neymar, there is no financial leverage. Until pro-gay fans boycott sports enough to cripple a club’s profits, or a surge of gay-positive and curious fans break attendance records to see it, it does not make economic sense for clubs to make this move. In fact, clubs that try to open doors to diversity can find themselves under attack. Hate and violence are very present throughout the world as we can see in this story:

Arsonists torch the offices of Israeli soccer club Beitar Jerusalem after the team signs two Muslim players 

“Beitar’s fans are known for chanting racist anti-Arab slogans during games. Some are furious after the team added two Muslim players–Zaur Sadayev and Gabriel Kadiev. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Friday’s attacks.”

The second characteristic that Jackie Robinson shared with Rosa Parks is that they were carefully screened to be that pioneering person. People who wanted to break the barriers looked at them and decided they had the strength of character to endure the negative publicity, the hate speech, threats, and the danger of physical attacks that they were certainly going to experience.

Again Wikipedia: “Besides selecting Robinson for his exceptional baseball skills, Branch Rickey also considered Robinson’s outstanding personal character in his decision, since he knew that boos, taunts, and criticism would be directed at Robinson and that Robinson would have to be tough enough to withstand this abuse without attempting to retaliate.”
In fact there is some data to suggest that Robinson was far from the best black baseball player of the moment; it was that he was a good enough baseball player with the courage and discipline – he was 28 years old as a rookie – to go through the crucible of hate and violence that would greet him.

Rosa Parks was also a perfect candidate to go into history: “Parks was the ideal plaintiff for 800px-Barack_Obama_in_the_Rosa_Parks_busa test case against city and state segregation laws, as she was a responsible, mature woman with an excellent reputation. King said that Mrs. Parks was regarded as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest Negro citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery.” Parks was securely married and employed, possessed a quiet and dignified demeanor, and was politically savvy.”

On the other hand, Robbie Rogers is 25 years old and has played professional soccer for seven years. A native of Columbus Ohio and and alum of Mater Dei HS in southern California, he does not appear to have the desire or the mettle to be the guy who goes through the gauntlet of publicity and virulent protest that will greet the first gay professional player. He has suffered through multiple injuries throughout his playing career. He is interested in, and possesses talent in fashion design. I don’t think he is the dog for this fight.

Norman Rockwell called it "The  Problem we all live with"

Norman Rockwell called it “The Problem we all live with”

On the third count, however, the time may be near. Many people are ready but it’s hard to tell if we’re at a tipping point yet. On the one hand we have Beitar Jerusalem’s fans burning their own offices. On the other we have Don Rogers, the commissioner of the MLS tweeting support for Rogers the same day his announcement came out.:

Garber tweetTimes are in flux. My girl Danica Patrick has won the Daytona 500 pole, becoming the first woman to secure the top spot for any Sprint Cup race.

But go to Mitch Albom’s sensitive piece in the Detroit Free Press, “One day, coming out won’t mean leaving” and then look at the hateful ignorant comments section.

Then read An article in Grantland  and another in the Guardian  and others who have rallied to support Rogers, and there is an element of “’Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’”

Or as Dr. King wrote, in his 1958 book Stride Toward Freedom, Parks’ arrest was the catalyst rather than the cause of the protest: “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices.” He wrote, “Actually, no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.‘”

So — when will there be an openly gay professional soccer player?

Update, from the SF Chron piece on the NFL scouting combine:

“Now word has come out that some of those same adult men were posing inappropriate personal questions to the young players, questions about girlfriends and if players ‘like girls.’ In other words, coded queries that really mean, ‘Are you gay?’ ”

Followed by this on the same day:

“Just as athletes should be judged, not by their sexual orientation, but by their performance and the way they treat their teammates,” they said, “so too should people be judged as citizens by how they act and treat others, and not what they inherently are.”

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