Landon Donovan and the players on his USL team didn’t just talk the talk. On Wednesday night, they walked the walk — by walking right off the field.
Just a week after one of their Black players was called the n-word by a now-former LA Galaxy II defender during a match, another member of the San Diego Loyal, the second-tier United Soccer League club co-owned and coached by U.S. national team legend Donovan was on the receiving end of another slur.
This time, it was a homophobic slur directed at Collin Martin, the Loyal’s only openly gay player and one of only a few “out” athletes in North American sports, by soon-to-be-ex-Phoenix Rising forward Junior Flemmings.
This time, the team did what Donovan said they should’ve back on Sept. 23 and would have had they immediately realized what transpired then.
This time, they refused to play on. Good on them.
For not only did the Loyal’s players walk off the field, they returned to the locker room while they were leading Phoenix Rising 3-1 at halftime of their most important game of the season, a game they pretty much had to win to have any chance of making the USL Championship playoffs in their expansion campaign.
They determined, correctly and also bravely, that after what had unfolded over the last seven days — which already was splashed against the backdrop of the biggest social justice movement in the United States in more than half a century — they had to do more than just offer the normal statements or platitudes denouncing discrimination. They had to lead.
“We’ve been through a lot in the last week,” Donovan said after being shown a red card following a heated confrontation with officials and soon-to-be-ex Rising coach Rick Schantz. More on Schantz later. “I understand that most people watching from afar probably don’t get it, but we’ve been living it.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen athletes use the leverage of refusing to play to make a point recently, of course. Last month, after yet another video of an unarmed Black man being shot by police went viral, this time Jacob Blake of Wisconsin, a host of NBA, MLS and MLB teams drew attention to it by staging wildcat strikes.
Wednesday’s incident was made even more remarkable by the fact that Loyal and Rising players had decided among themselves before the game to temporarily halt play in the second half to jointly hold a sign reading “I will speak, I will act” as a show of unity against any sort of bigotry or discrimination within the sport and society at large. They didn’t even make it that far.
At halftime, Martin told the referee that Flemmings had verbally abused him. “When I heard that, I lost it. Because I know with this team has gone through, I know how hard it was for them to even take the field tonight given everything that happened,” Donovan said. “And then for it to happen again a week later, it was just devastating for me.”
The referee apparently heard Flemmings call Martin a “batty boy” but claimed not know the meaning of the Jamaican slur and declined to discipline Flemmings. Donovan asked Schantz to remove Flemmings from the match himself, or his team would walk. Not only did Schantz refuse, video of the conversation showed him arguing that it was no big deal, something that happens in the heat of battle. “He didn’t mean it,” Schantz seemed to say in the clip. “How long have you been playing soccer?”
There was a time not long ago when that sort of thinking was normal. In 2020, it’s not even close to acceptable. As the leader of his team, Schantz was given an opportunity to walk the talk and do the right thing and failed miserably. His behavior here is somehow even more inexcusable than Flemmimgs.
Early Thursday, the USL said it was investigating. “We are aware of the alleged use of a homophobic slur in tonight’s match,” the league said. “Foul and abusive language of any type has absolutely no place in our society and will not be tolerated in USL matches.”
If the scene played out the way it appeared to, the USL’s response should be obvious. San Diego’s forfeit should be overturned. They should be awarded the win that Phoenix got when the match was abandoned. The Rising should be docked three points. Their large and diverse ownership group, which includes the likes of Chelsea great Didier Drogba and American DJ Diplo, must cut ties with Flemmings and Schantz as soon as possible, as the Galaxy did with their offender last week.
“Our players in the heart of the moment and in the passion of the moment still want to play,” Donovan said. “They were kicking Phoenix’s ass, and that’s a great feeling as a soccer player. But if you want to be true to who we are as a club, we have to speak, and we have to act.”
By taking a stand and putting what’s right ahead of the win, the playoffs, any bonus money that comes with those things, San Diego did more than just act. They led by example. It’s up to other to follow.
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