The incident that turned a second-tier soccer club into front-page news began with a disputed whistle.
San Diego Loyal midfielder Collin Martin began jawing with Phoenix Rising forward Junior Flemmings over a late first-half yellow card that resulted in a San Diego free kick.
“It got personal pretty fast,” Martin told Yahoo Sports. “He used some bad language toward me and it got to the point where I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is super disrespectful.’ ”
When Martin got upset, Flemmings allegedly escalated the argument. According to Martin, the Jamaican made a homophobic reference to the fact that Martin is openly gay.
“[He] called me ‘batty boy,’ which I knew basically translates to f-----,” Martin said.
The alleged slur directed at Martin came one week after another San Diego player was the target of bigotry. A Los Angeles Galaxy II defender called one of the Loyal’s Black players the n-word.
Whereas the Loyal kept playing last week only to retroactively forfeit in protest, this time they made a much stronger statement. They walked off the field together en masse at the start of the second half, torpedoing their faint playoff hopes and leaving Martin in tears.
San Diego Loyal co-founder and president Warren Smith told Yahoo Sports that “multiple” players heard the alleged slur directed at Martin, but Flemmings disputed their account. On Twitter, he emphatically denied the allegation Thursday, saying “at no point did I say a homophobic slur toward Collin Martin. I do not know Collin personally, but I respect all of my opponents equally, including Collin. … I stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ movement.”
Martin is firm in his accusation. He’s angry about the homophobic slur, grateful that his teammates and coaches took an unprecedented stand on his behalf and disappointed that so far Flemmings has denied his alleged role in the incident.
“The way I’ve been taught is if you do something wrong, you own up to it and you do what’s necessary to make it right,” Martin says. “[Flemmings] hasn’t done that. I hope he takes a real hard look at himself, he learns from it and he wipes that word from his vocabulary.”
The Loyal vow to act
Collin Martin views himself as fortunate.
Until Wednesday night, he hadn’t experienced hardly any homophobia in professional soccer.
Martin’s friends, family, teammates and coaches had known about his sexuality for years by the time he revealed publicly that he was gay. Hoping to become a role model for kids who are gay and want to pursue sports, the then-Minnesota United player made the announcement on social media hours before his MLS club faced FC Dallas on Pride Night in June 2018.
“I was confident I was completely supported by that organization in every direction and it gave me the courage to share that with the world,” Martin said. “I knew it was something to celebrate, not something to hide anymore.”
When Minnesota released him in October 2019 and no other MLS team offered him a contract, Martin sought a USL team where he could assume a bigger role on the field yet still experience acceptance off of it. Enter San Diego, which signed him in February because manager Landon Donovan believed Martin’s experience and creativity could bolster the expansion club’s midfield.
“We definitely talked about and acknowledged that he was gay, but it was no issue for us,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “Can the guy play soccer and is he a good guy? That’s all we cared about.”
San Diego performed like a typical overmatched expansion team until a series of late-season signings sparked a reversal of fortune. A five-match stretch without a loss vaulted the Loyal into playoff contention entering their second-to-last game of the season on Sept. 23 against the Los Angeles Galaxy II.
In the 71st minute of that game, Galaxy defender Omar Ontiveros directed the n-word at San Diego’s Elijah Martin during a clash in front of the Galaxy bench. The Loyal allege that referees and Galaxy players and coaches were all within earshot yet did nothing to address the use of a racial slur at the time.
While the USL suspended Ontiveros for six games and the Galaxy subsequently released him, the Loyal still regretted not walking off the field in protest. Their only recourse was to retroactively forfeit the 1-1 draw and the single point that came with it.
"We don't even want to recognize being a part of a match where these types of actions take place," the Loyal's chairman, Andrew Vassiliadis, said in a statement. "The Loyal in our name is symbolic of the diversity in our community and as a club we will not stand for this."
Though the Loyal considered boycotting Wednesday’s must-win regular-season finale against Phoenix, they ultimately decided to play. They donned black jerseys featuring the phrase “Black Lives Matter” where their last names would normally go and hung signage in their stadium that read, “I will speak. I will act. Black Lives Matter.”
At the 71-minute mark, San Diego and Phoenix players planned to temporarily halt play and jointly hold a sign that read “I will speak, I will act.” It was supposed to be a show of unity against bigotry in soccer, except the match never made it that far.
‘This is beyond soccer’
It was what happened to Elijah Martin the previous week that made Collin Martin feel he had to speak out.
How could he stay silent about the alleged homophobic slur when the phrase “I will speak, I will act” was plastered all over the stadium?
“Maybe in years past I would have let it slide, but this time I wasn’t having it,” Martin said. “We had talked about standing up for what was right and standing up for each other. I was called a homophobic slur. I’m an out gay man. I knew it wasn’t right and I wasn’t going to let it go.”
The first chance Martin had to mention the incident to the referee came after a teammate’s free kick goal gave the Loyal a 3-1 lead. The referee misunderstood at first and thought Martin was calling him a gay slur, resulting in a red card that was later rescinded.
If Donovan was mad about the curious red card, he became irate when he learned of the slur that was allegedly directed at Martin’ “We’re off the field,” Donovan said, signaling for his guys to leave the stadium. “We’re not doing this again.”
As the referee explained to Donovan that he had made a mistake issuing the red card to Martin, another San Diego player approached Phoenix coach Rick Schantz and told him, “Coach, your player called my gay teammate a batty boy.”
“This is beyond soccer,” an incensed Donovan said.
“Come on man, don’t make a big scene,” Schantz replied.
When Donovan told Schantz “we have to get this out of our game,” the Phoenix coach was unmoved.
“They’re competing,” Schantz said. “How long have you been playing soccer?”
The San Diego Loyal walked off the field in protest Wednesday night, saying a Phoenix Rising player used an anti-gay slur directed at openly-gay midfielder Collin Martin.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 1, 2020
Manager Landon Donovan discussed the incident with the referee and Phoenix head coach Rick Schantz. pic.twitter.com/WlOYauQhgV
Schantz on Thursday released a statement insisting that his question was a reference to “Donovan’s behavior on the field with the referee,” but the Loyal did not buy his explanation. To Martin, it was obvious that Schantz was excusing Flemmings’ alleged slur.
Schantz and Flemmings have since been put on “administrative leave” pending the results of a USL investigation.
“He was saying that this type of language happens in soccer and that should be OK,” Martin said. “That’s deplorable. He thinks it’s part of sports to demean a player, whether it’s racial or homophobic. I guess it’s OK to say whatever on a soccer field according to him.”
The Loyal walk off
In the San Diego Loyal’s halftime meeting, only one player wanted to play the second half.
That was Collin Martin, who initially couldn’t stomach being the reason his team forfeited a game that they were leading 3-1 and gave up any hope of securing a playoff berth.
“I was probably the only one that was adamant about playing,” Martin said. “Everyone else was like, ‘No, we’re not playing. This is ridiculous. We have to make a stand.’ ”
What the Loyal collectively decided was to ask the referee and the Phoenix coach to remove Flemmings from the game. If one did, the Loyal would play on. If not, they would forfeit.
Donovan first approached the referee, who told Donovan he could not penalize Flemmings without having heard what he said.
Next Donovan approached Schantz. That went nowhere, too.
At that point, the Loyal followed through on their threat. They began the second half by taking a knee after the kickoff, then walked off the field en masse, Martin with his jersey pulled over his tear-stained face.
“I’m very proud of our guys,” Smith said. “They really, really wanted to play. They said they would play if the player in question was pulled off the pitch. Neither the referee nor the coach chose to do that, so they chose to walk off. We support that. We’re saddened it had to happen, but we’re proud of the action we took.”
Twenty-four hours removed from the incident, Martin is equally proud.
Yes, it was an ugly incident. Yes, it prematurely ended the Loyal’s season. Yes, Martin hasn’t gotten an apology. But he chooses to focus on the positive, on the fact that the show of support from a second-tier expansion soccer club could spark higher-profile teams across America to do the same when faced with similar circumstances.
“Landon has told us that the only way we’re going to see any change is to act,” Martin said. “If we keep letting these things happen and we don’t do anything about it, then we’re part of the problem. Bringing this stuff to light and holding other people accountable is the only way to make progress.”
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