It is remarkable what Landon Donovan and the San Diego Loyal did on Wednesday night.
Leading the Phoenix Rising 3-1 in a game they needed to win to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Loyal walked off the field at the start of the second half, in support of openly gay teammate Collin Martin, who was called a homophobic slur by a Rising player.
It was, as colleague Doug McIntyre wrote, a textbook example of true allyship.
As we praise Donovan, the coach and co-founder of the USL’s Loyal, and those players — and they deserve all of it — we can’t lose sight of what led to them making that profound decision: soccer has a huge problem that isn’t going away.
An exchange between Donovan and Phoenix coach Rick Schantz from Wednesday night’s game illuminates just how deep the issues go in soccer, and how casual bigotry is so easily excused by those not on the receiving end of it.
Donovan was asking the game officials to remove the offending player, Junior Flemmings, from the game. When the official would not — he claimed he did not know what the slur used meant (Flemmings used “batty boy,” a phrase from his native Jamaica) — Donovan wanted Schantz to pull him off the field.
Schantz not only wouldn’t pull Flemmings, he told Donovan not to “make a big scene.” When Donovan leaned in to the opposing coach and flatly said, “We have to get this out of our game,” Schantz said, “They’re competing. ... How long have you been playing soccer?”
Let’s put aside for a second how clueless Schantz looks by asking Landon freaking Donovan — he of 157 caps during a 14-year career with the senior U.S. national team and 57 international goals and on a very short list for greatest American men’s player in history — how long he’s been playing soccer.
“They’re competing” is not an excuse to verbally abuse someone. It’s not an excuse to target someone with a slur related to their race or sexual orientation, things they have no control over.
Schantz’s “explanation” of his words toward Donovan was laughable. On Twitter, he posted that his “How long have you been in soccer?” query to Donovan was about Donovan’s “behavior on the field with the referee, and in no way was I excusing any alleged homophobic behavior from my players.”
Video of the exchange belies that.
Forty years ago, 20 years ago, maybe even a decade ago, Schantz’s on-field response would have been common. The game certainly would have gone on. Martin would have had to internalize the abuse.
Those days are gone, at least they are for many of us, and they should be for all of us.
People like Rick Schantz are why there are still children and even adults all over the country terrified to come out to coaches and teammates and others, fearful of how they’ll be treated, scared of what abuse they might endure because to people like Schantz and Flemmings, trying to win a soccer game is more important than treating another human being with basic respect.
But it’s not just homophobia that plagues soccer, it’s racism and sexism as well. FIFA, the global governing body of the sport, has done little of substance to quell such behavior. Regional bodies have similarly been nearly silent.
Just a week ago, the Loyal saw another player victimized by a slur: midfielder Elijah Martin was called the n-word by L.A. Galaxy II player Omar Ontiveros. Ontiveros was suspended by the USL, America’s second-tier professional soccer league, and then released by the Galaxy.
After that event, the Loyal requested to forfeit the result, a tie, with co-owner Andrew Vassiliadis saying in a statement that the team didn’t “even want to recognize being part of a match where these types of actions take place.”
Donovan wishes the team had walked off in the moment, but didn’t know what had occurred until after the game was over.
If only everyone in soccer were as compassionate and dedicated to improving the bigotry in the sport.
Last month, after superstar Neymar said an opponent called him a “monkey” during a match, French Football Federation president Noël Le Graët jaw-droppingly said, “racism in sport, and in football in particular, does not exist at all or barely exists.”
This despite example after example in stadiums around the world of Black players being called all manner of slurs, or, as American striker Jozy Altidore recently recounted, having fans chant “ooh-ooh-ooh” like an ape when he touched the ball, as happened in the Netherlands.
What the Loyal did Wednesday is to be applauded.
But teams fighting for a playoff spot shouldn’t have to forfeit a game to make a point — if soccer truly is the beautiful game, it needs to start doing the actual work of eradicating hatred in all forms and make it clear that the humanity of all players is valued.
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