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The last line of showrunner April Blair’s All American pitch has always stuck with me: “At this moment, we live in a world where we only see each other’s differences, but through this show, we will learn that there is much more that unites us than divides us — we all love, mourn and dream.“
When I was first introduced to NFL player Spencer Paysinger through my good friend and colleague Dane Morck, I found myself living April’s closing line. Spencer and I were different. For starters, I’ll state the obvious, he is a towering 6-foot-3 black man from South Central Los Angeles. I am a not-as-towering white gay man from Palos Verdes (soccer players aren’t required to be tall). While we both had careers as professional athletes, one of us (me) used his feet to kick a ball while the other has the upper body strength to push a semi-truck across the length of a football field (not me). And although Spencer and I are both California natives, we come from different places entirely. The only time I had spent in Spencer’s hometown before meeting him was when I was playing in the Latino soccer leagues as a little kid.
Spencer’s path to professional ball alone is remarkable. He bussed back and forth from South Central to Beverly Hills in order to attend a school his family thought would give him the best opportunity, while still managing to take care of his younger brother and help his mom. Being a teenager is challenging enough, but having to navigate successfully between two worlds with such economic extremes was almost impossible to comprehend. The privilege of Beverly Hills, a world free of consequences, led many of his friends astray, in contrast to his community in South Central where wearing the wrong color out the front door has real life consequences.
Let’s be clear, I will never know what it’s like to grow up as a black man in America — Spencer’s stories about the L.A. riots that followed the Rodney King verdict, gang violence and police brutality were, while not surprising to me, things I had not lived. And through knowing Spencer and being lucky enough to hear his story, I’ve learned so much, not only about our differences, but about how similar he and I are.
Like Spencer, I know what it’s like to be an outsider, to be a person caught between two worlds, questioning where I belong … if I could ever belong. Spencer — who consults on All American — once said to me, “I didn’t use football as a way to get out, I used it to create opportunity for myself so I could give back to my community.” I’ll confess, when I was trying to escape the conservative home of my childhood, I wasn’t thinking about giving back … or helping others. I was only thinking about the escape. As a closeted gay soccer player, I used my sport and my success as a way out. I thought becoming a professional soccer player would help me find the admiration and love I had longed for but never really felt like I deserved. Eventually, I came out and I learned that, similar to Spencer, my position in the sports world allowed me a voice to give back to LGBT community. It was and is a community in desperate need of more representation and amazing role models like Jason Collins, Megan Rapinoe or Gus Kenworthy.
In developing All American and in the magic of April Blair’s writing and watching our talented cast and director bring it to life, I realized even more that not only did I relate to Spencer’s story, but also that there is a little bit of Spencer in all of us. We are all outsiders desperate for love and acceptance. We all look for the courage to stand up for what’s right. And we all hope to reach our dreams in order to make our loved ones proud. Every person’s dream is worth fighting for, and we all have stories to tell. Hopefully, by sharing these stories, our hardships, mistakes and small glories, whether on the field or off, we can shine a light and if not inspire someone, then just inform.
Which brings me to my final realization: In today’s day and age, just being who you are in professional sports, especially as a minority, makes you a kind of political figure. It gives you a staggering opportunity to say something to the world and to be a part of the change you want to see. A person I love recently said to me, “Ugh, we should just keep all politics out of sports.” They were referring to the NFL players who decided to take a knee to protest police brutality. My knee-jerk response was to get angry or not respond at all, but I thought better and asked them simply, “Who would I be if I decided to keep politics out of sports?” The answer is simple, I would be without my husband [All American exec producer Greg Berlanti] and son, who are the center of my universe. I would be depressed and fearful, still living abroad away from my family, and lastly — I wouldn’t have the community I’ve been so honored to join and represent. So, whether you agree with my life or the NFL players who choose to kneel or not, sports have always been and will always be political, and the lessons of sports will always go far beyond the field.
It may seem silly, but I wish young Spencer and young Robbie could have spent a day with each other talking about their dreams — what fears consumed their young minds and what they could do to conquer those fears. They were probably both a little naive to how the world would perceive them. But they would quickly learn that what made them different and special would also create hate and anger among those most ignorant in our society. I wish I could tell them that being the minority at times would make them the voice of “the other,” and that their voices would be used in a much larger plan to inspire the next generation of dreamers.
It is the hope of everyone who has worked so diligently on All American to do just that. Spencer Paysinger has lived a heroic and remarkable life, and April Blair has created an entertaining and uplifting show that shines a wonderful light on how similar we all really are, especially at a moment in our country when it seems like there is absolutely nothing we have in common with people who look or think differently than ourselves. But those differences don’t have to divide us. Through sports, relationships and family, April subtly reminds us again and again that we all love, mourn and dream.
Robbie Rogers is a retired professional soccer player and a producer on The CW’s All American, which bows Oct. 10 on The CW.
Editor’s note: April Blair exited All American for personal reasons. Nkechi Okoro Carroll has taken over as showrunner on the series, which has already received an order for five additional scripts.
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