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Gay Marriage and the Game

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Why the Supreme Court's decision that legalized gay marriage across the US matters for American soccer. It matters more than you may think.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued a decision that effectively legalized same sex marriage across the United States. As soon as the decision was announced, celebrations erupted around the country and all over social media. The point of this pos is not to debate the ruling; there are plenty of places for that and this isn't one of them. But this article will look at the response from the the soccer world in the US, including the US Soccer Federation, Major League Soccer, numerous players, the vast majority of MLS clubs, club personnel, and retired stars.

It's no secret that sports is one of the last places where one can easily encounter ugly homophobic language. There are still sports fans, still soccer fans, who use references to sexual orientation or gender identity as a way to insult members of the opposing team (and, on particularly rough nights, their own team). It's not uncommon, but it's also a lot less common that it was a decade ago and is far less common at Major League Soccer matches than some other sports or leagues. We've made some major strides in how we talk about players, but that problematic, ugly language does still exist in some places. But this is one of the few areas, apart from indicting FIFA executives and the USWNT, where the US is actually a global leader.

When Robbie Rogers came out in 2013, he retired from the game, not thinking it would be possible to be openly gay and to continue to play professionally. Not a single players in one of the big leagues was out at the time and there were no openly gay male athletes playing in the NBA (Jason Collins came out in April 2013, about two months after Rogers), MLB, the NHL, or the NFL (Michael Sam, who made history as the first openly gay athlete to be drafted in the NFL draft, was drafted in 2014). The La Galaxy's signing of Rogers in May 2013 meant that MLS was the first major US league and the only premier soccer league to field an openly gay player; when the LA Galaxy won the 2014 MLS Cup, Rogers became the first openly gay player to win a major team championship in the US.

So it's not surprising that the leagueRobbie Rogers, and the Galaxy were quick to take to social media to talk about the decision. While most clubs were likely focused more on Rivalry Week matches than on the Supreme Court's decision calendar, someone at the league was prepared. Within about 15 minutes of the initial reading of the decision on Friday morning, MLS tweeted a picture of a rainbow tifo with the only text being '<3'. Retired US legend Landon Donovan was one of the first to publicly tweet his joy at the decision; he was joined by other players around the league and retired legends like Julie Foudy. The vast majority of MLS teams, from the Portland Timbers to the Chicago Fire to the Columbus Crew, tweeted images of support, often of fans in their stadiums with rainbow banners or flags. To see more, check out MLS' roundup article.

Many of the messages of support came within the first few hours of the decision, giving the graphics teams at clubs a chance to edit images and get something out in a timely fashion, but as the day wore on and the first match of rivalry week approached, fans of certain teams noticed that their clubs had failed to say anything. By late afternoon, quite a few FC Dallas fans expressed their regret and frustration that the club had not made any kind of statement; even recognizing the political climate of a state like Texas, it was frustrating for fans to feel like their club was not getting the memo that this decision mattered to the league.

At that point, the only response from FC Dallas was from keeper Chris Seitz, who was excited to have such great news before the Texas Derby. Some fans took to Twitter to criticize the club or to ask why a response hadn't been issued. It was early evening, an hour of so from match start, when FC Dallas president Dan Hunt tweeted "Consistent with my beliefs, I'm glad to see discrimination is not tolerated in this country." The club then retweeted it. I assume that Hunt's message was meant to related to today's decision and serve as a way to reassure fans that the club is opposed to discrimination, but the imprecise language of the statement also means that Hunt makes a demonstrably untrue claim (as discrimination does still exist in this country, but is being removed from legal codes by the decision).

I don't say this to be unduly critical of Dan Hunt (he takes a lot of heat and so this isn't about him as a person or his beliefs), but because this ruling matters a great deal to Major League Soccer. This afternoon, the USWNT had a quarterfinal Women's World Cup match against China, a rematch of the 1999 final. Several members of the team, including Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, are openly gay; head coach Jill Ellis and her wife have a young daughter. Today's ruling meant that, for the first time, all of the women who proudly play for the pride of their country were able to legally marry the person they choose, regardless of that person's gender and regardless of where they live or play. The team was very open about the fact that today's ruling mattered and gave them a boost. The image at the top of this article is what the US Soccer Federation posted after the ruling, a gesture that was more than symbolic for the women of the USWNT. More than ever, we're getting closer to #OneNationOneTeam that treats its citizens equally under the law. Carli Lloyd's response to what was different about today? "Freedom."

There are LGBT players in every major US league, but for a variety of reasons, they have elected not to come out. Major League Soccer is different, because not only is there an openly gay athlete in MLS, his sexuality is rarely a topic of conversation amongst fans (save for comments of the "I can't imagine it's easy" kind). If fans do discuss it, it happens less often in stadiums and in publication. He's demonstrated time and time again that his sexuality and his talent on the pitch are both part of him, but they aren't in conflict. For players around the world, who long to both play professionally and be able to love whomever they choose, MLS has the ability to really change the discourse. Today's ruling, especially once it is fully instituted, will make a tremendous difference for LGBT players in all sports; for a league that has already done some work on this issue, imagine the possibilities that this opens up for us. Because of the single-entity structure of MLS, players don't get a say in where they end up playing (there are exceptions, yes, but this is the "rule," insofar as MLS likes to follow its own rules). Imagine being told you had to move to a place where your marriage wasn't considered valid, where the legal protections you've sought to protect your loved ones don't exist.

Friday, this changes.

Players no longer will have to worry about where they get transferred and whether or not they will have to deal with extra paperwork or a denial of rights because of the gender of their partner; it removes from obstacles that might have been keeping players away. It also matters because this will help to make the immigration process, which is excruciating for spouses as it is and is nearly unnavigable for LGBT couples, much easier. If we want to be a destination league, a league where people want to come and play and not just as a last resort, today's decision makes that easier for a population of players who might be looking for a playing environment with a little less homophobia to make the move. And the best thing for soccer in the US is making sure that we continue to produce and recruit amazing talent. And regardless of our views on same sex marriages, hopefully we can all agree that if you can play, you can play, and we want the best to play here.