Editor's note: The USL Championship announced on Tuesday that it has issued a six-game suspension and undisclosed fine to Phoenix Rising's Junior Flemmings for the use of abusive language during the Sept. 30 match against San Diego Loyal. The suspension covers the entirety of the upcoming USL Championship playoffs, which begin on Oct. 8.
Collin Martin wanted to keep playing.
This was in spite of the fact that Phoenix Rising forward Junior Flemmings had directed an anti-gay slur -- "b---y boy" -- at the San Diego Loyal midfielder at the end of the first half of last Wednesday's match between the two sides. The Loyal were still battling for a playoff spot, needing a win to stay in contention. At the very least, Martin wanted to finish the season strong by beating one of the USL Championship's best teams.
As deplorable as Flemmings' alleged behavior was, just as bad were the decisions by those in a position to do something about it. Referee Joseph Salinas said he wouldn't red-card Flemmings because he wasn't familiar with the slur. Phoenix manager Rick Schantz not only declined to substitute Flemmings but tried to downplay the incident, telling San Diego manager Landon Donovan that it was just something that happens in the heat of the battle.
"He didn't mean it," Schantz appeared to say on video. "How long have you been playing soccer?"
Donovan wasn't about to let the incident slide.
"You see it on the signboards. If you watch [Wednesday's] game back, it's constantly in the background saying, 'I will speak. I will act,'" Donovan said. "And so then we get the irony of ironies, we get confronted with this moment, right in the middle of the game. And it's like, 'OK, well, you can talk about it, or you can actually do it.' So, this is what we've committed to, what we believe in. We have no choice."
The ironies didn't end there. The Rising and the Loyal were supposed to stop play in the 71st minute, according to Donovan, and raise a banner in an anti-racist tribute to Elijah Martin, who was racially abused by an opponent during another league game. But their match on Wednesday never got that far. When Donovan walked into the Loyal locker room at Torero Stadium at halftime on Wednesday, there were multiple paths forward, but it was clear that something had to be done.
"We basically agreed that we weren't going to play the second half unless something was done to Flemmings," Collin Martin told ESPN. "Either a red card from the ref, their coach subbing him out, or [Flemmings] owning up to it and maybe subbing himself out. None of the three were done. And so Landon gave us the ultimate decision, but he said, 'I think you should walk out.' And so we kneeled and walked off the field."
All of this happened amid the backdrop of another instance of verbal abuse against a Loyal player. A week earlier, the N-word had been directed at a San Diego's Elijah Martin (no relation to Collin) by now-former LA Galaxy II defender Omar Ontiveros. Ontiveros wasn't sanctioned with a red card, as he should have been, despite the slur being heard by one of the officials. In the aftermath, there was also regret on the part of the Loyal players that they didn't do more to back up their teammate. (San Diego ultimately asked to be allowed to forfeit the game and give up the point earned from a 1-1 draw. The USL has yet to decide whether that will be the case.) The Loyal were also determined not to let it happen again.
"[The forfeit] was more about our inaction," Donovan said. "Because our players felt guilty that they didn't say something in the moment. And so we just realized there's nothing we can control outside of our decisions and our choices. So we can't control whether the Galaxy decide to do something, we can't control if the league decides to do something. But we can decide and we can act on how we want to respond."
Anger and shame
Collin Martin has been out about his homosexuality since 2018. He said that his sexual orientation has never been an issue during his professional career. In fact, he couldn't remember a time even when he was an academy player with D.C. United that such slurs had come up.
All the more reason he was surprised at what happened on Wednesday.
Martins said he and Flemmings had been jawing a bit after the Loyal's Alejandro Guido was fouled just outside the box just before halftime. Flemmings tried to increase the vitriol, but Martin kept his composure. It was then that Martin says Flemmings uttered the slur. (Flemmings denied it immediately after the game.)
"I've heard the word before, and I knew exactly what it meant, obviously," Martin said. "I took offense right away. It's one thing to tell me to go f--- myself, but to have homophobic slurs at me, that crossed the line."
After the Loyal's Rubio Rubin scored on the ensuing free kick, Martin twice attempted to tell the referee what had happened, only for Salinas to think that Martin was calling him "gay." Martin was issued a red card, and bedlam ensued. When the situation was explained to Salinas, the red card was rescinded, but the reactions from Donovan and Schantz were polar opposites. Donovan indicated he wanted something done. Schantz declined, and seemed to be dismissive of the point Donovan was trying to make.
"I was disgusted by [Schantz's response] just as much as I was disgusted by the slur," Martin said.
Almost unnoticed, Flemmings approached Martin.
"Flemmings said, 'I know your situation,'" Martin recalled. "He's been saying that I know you're gay. I didn't call you 'b---y boy.' But it's obvious. He realizes what he said. And he's trying to backtrack."
The Rising said in a statement: "Phoenix Rising FC is actively anti-homophobia and anti-racist and has a zero tolerance policy for actions which run contrary to these core values." A request for additional comment from the Rising was not successful.
The combination of Flemmings' words and the events that followed cut deep for Martin.
"[I was] ashamed that my sexuality would have anything to do with any situations in a sporting event and why that has to come up," he said. "And just ashamed that me getting called that is a big enough deal to walk off the field at a soccer game. The last thing I want is for that to be a problem. But for him to make it one, that goes to show how ridiculous it is."
Brenda Elsey is an associate professor of history at Hofstra University and serves as the lead development officer in the Americas for the Fare Network, an organization that seeks to combat inequality and bigotry in soccer. As such, she has looked upon what has happened to the Loyal the past two weeks with interest. She has seen other instances and reactions similar to Martin's.
"If you're in a society where homophobia has been normalized, particularly in men's sports, there's no way to not have internalized some of that," she said about Martin's emotions. "And so that when you are abused -- with gender violence, homophobia or racism -- that kicks in the shame, and that you're ashamed to 'make a big deal of it,' to react to it.
"You hear this a lot. You do see these kids that have dealt with racial abuse in other countries, and they're very, very angry. But they're ashamed, and they don't know what to do. And, you know, they're told that they're making it up. That it's in their head. And so I think that whole systemic racism and systemic homophobia comes crashing down on the player in that moment."
The fissures become chasms
For all of the deserved praise directed at Donovan, Martin and the Loyal organization, the incidents of the past two weeks have served to shine a light on systemic weaknesses in the soccer ecosystem.
Why did two different referees in two different games choose to do nothing when confronted with what happened? Why did other witnesses to what happened opt to be silent? While the USL has done an admirable job of investigating such incidents in recent years, shouldn't the U.S. Soccer Federation be taking on a bigger role? And perhaps most pertinent of all, what steps can be taken up and down the soccer ladder to root out such behavior?
There have been some incremental moves to address what took place over the past 10 days. For its part, the Professional Referee Organization issued a statement stating that the official who heard the racial slur directed at Elijah Martin "has been removed from a subsequent assignment and will continue to receive education as a part of PRO's ongoing commitment to hold referees at all levels accountable to combating racism in any form during competition."
The USL's investigation into last Wednesday's incident is ongoing, and Phoenix placed Flemmings and Schantz on "administrative leave." (Both Phoenix and San Diego issued a joint statement pledging "to work together to ensure that this moment could be used by all involved to teach, build, and ultimately make our sport, our league, and our communities better, more compassionate places.") The Rising said Schantz's leave -- at least for the moment -- was "unrelated to the current investigation," but it certainly hints at stiffer penalties to come for player and coach. Ontiveros received a six-match ban for his actions. Flemmings will likely receive the same.
The USL also told ESPN that it is reexamining the penalties for foul and abusive language ahead of the 2021 season and that all players and staff will be required to take unconscious bias/racial diversity training before the next campaign. In terms of enforcement, Elsey believes that the USSF is the body that should take over the task of investigating these incidents.
"The league shouldn't necessarily be expected to investigate when the owners own the teams, and they have a disincentive to sanction teams compared to the federation," she said.
When asked for comment, the USSF issued the following statement: "We have good-faith relationships with the professional leagues and allow them to handle these types of situations. At the same time, we are always willing to assist the leagues as needed, especially if asked."
Donovan and Elsey are in agreement that the only way to really root out the kind of on-field behavior that has plagued the USL in the past two weeks is to punish clubs, preferably with a points deduction that hits fans, players, coaches and owners where it hurts most.
"There is what you call a collective responsibility," Elsey said. "And that is always a debate. People get very, very upset about that all the time -- to punish clubs. One fan is going to do this racial abuse, and you're punishing the club? And it's like, 'Yes, yes, we are, because collective responsibility works.' Ejecting that one fan doesn't address the culture, and it doesn't get at the incentive to be proactive, to change the culture. So there's points and there's personal sanctions, and there's fines, right? Those all probably should be in play. They should be on the table."
Credit Donovan, Martin and the Loyal for taking the first step.
Of course, there have been instances of players being racially abused for years. In a 2017 Serie A game between Pescara and Cagliari, Pescara's Sulley Muntari complained to a referee about racist abuse from the stands and was booked instead. He walked off in protest, only to be hit with a one-game ban (though it was later rescinded). Earlier this year, Porto's Moussa Marega walked off the field after receiving racist abuse from fans of Vitoria Guimaraes. He was substituted, but left unanswered was why the referees didn't implement FIFA's three-step protocol for dealing with such incidents. The Loyal's collective action, even as it put an end to their hopes of reaching the postseason, has called attention to the fact that more needs to be done.
"Unfortunately, an email saying you're upset is not going to make somebody respond," Donovan said. "Walking off the field has made people respond. I wish it didn't have to be that way, because nobody wants to go through what we've had to go through in the last week. But I'm for whatever helps eradicate this behavior on the field and then the response off the field afterwards."
As for Martin, his impulse is to forgive Flemmings for what he did, but only if he's met halfway.
"I would love to show him grace," Martin said. "And I don't want to end his career, and I don't want him to be suspended 25 games, but you [have to] take responsibility for it."
The same is true for the game as a whole.