12 Oct Jonathan Cartu Writes: Landon Donovan on San Diego Loyal dealing with Collin Marti…
“How do we normalise someone’s sexual preference, so people don’t feel like they have to live behind a curtain their whole life?”
That’s the question US soccer superstar Landon Donovan, head coach of USL Championship side San Diego Loyal, poses in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports News after a member of his squad was subjected to homophobic abuse on the field of play less than two weeks ago.
Collin Martin, the only out gay player in US professional men’s soccer, and his team-mates walked off the pitch in protest after Phoenix Rising player Junior Flemmings used a homophobic slur.
Flemmings denies any wrongdoing but has since received a six-match ban and was fined for the incident.
In the footage that emerged, Donovan was clearly incensed on the touchline as he spoke with the referee and Phoenix manager, Rick Schantz, about how to proceed after the conclusion of the first half.
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.
Manager Landon Donovan discussed the incident with the referee and Phoenix head coach Rick Schantz. pic.twitter.com/WlOYauQhgV
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 1, 2020
A week before, Loyal’s player Elijah Martin was racially abused by LA Galaxy second-team player Omar Ontiveros, who was subsequently handed a six-match ban and fined. Loyal decided to forfeit the match – which had ended in a 1-1 draw.
“We didn’t do anything during the game, unfortunately,” Donovan told Sky Sports News. “And then after the game we dealt with it. But then the subsequent week was a really difficult week for our group.
“So my first reaction was kind of like a father, I reacted so emotionally because I was so sick of seeing our players go through this.”
Some of the things that happened on the field that night couldn’t be more contrary to the core values of our organisation. We feel that we can all be better and utilise our platform.
The former LA Galaxy and Everton player returned to the dressing room to find a “bizarre” atmosphere at half-time as he and his players came to terms with what had happened.
There was an agreement among the players that if Flemmings was removed, they would finish the match. However, neither the referee nor the Phoenix manager agreed to take him out of the game, leaving the Loyal’s squad with no choice but to forfeit.
“When the adrenaline is going and you are beating a very good team at half-time, everybody wants to play,” he said.
“It was very difficult at half-time to settle down and see the bigger picture.
“It wasn’t just any game, it was our last game of the season, which, if we’d won, we would have likely made the play-offs.
“For us, it was so final in that moment that the season was over. We didn’t want it to end that way but I think everybody saw the bigger meaning in what we were doing.”
He felt guilty that he said something, he felt guilty that we walked off the field, he felt guilty that our season was over. We are very adamant now that if you see or hear something you need to speak up and act. That’s what he did and that’s why, in my mind, he is a hero for what he did.
It was a difficult time for Martin in the aftermath of the incident. Donovan said he was left feeling the weight of the repercussions for speaking out against the homophobic abuse.
“He felt guilty that he said something, he felt guilty that we walked off the field, he felt guilty that our season was over,” Donovan added.
“We had to keep reminding him that he didn’t do anything wrong, he did the right thing by saying something. We are very adamant now that if you see or hear something, you need to speak up and you need to act.
“That’s what he did and that’s why, in my mind, he is a hero for what he did.
“We spoke over and over, in the days following and it was hard but I think he realises that it was a really powerful message to send.”
The situation is still far from resolved, though. Donovan is adamant that Flemmings must own up to what he has done and apologise to Martin – “it doesn’t have to be public, nobody has to know” – so they can “start the healing process”.
“The league spoke to numerous people on his team and our team, the referees and they gave a six-game suspension,” said Donovan. “They’re not going to give a six-game suspension if nothing was said.
“He needs to come to terms with that so that we can all heal. It’s a hard thing to do to apologise and to admit wrong, but it is an important step.
“We are very open and willing to help, not in a condescending way, educate people why that is so important.”
Phoenix Rising general manager Bobby Dulle appears to be on the same page as Donovan. He sees it as an opportunity to “learn from this moment” and “educate ourselves”.
“Some of the things that happened on the field that night couldn’t be more contrary to the core values of our organisation,” Dulle told Sky Sports News.
“We feel that we can all be better and utilise our platform.”
Martin is one of the few out gay male footballers currently playing at a professional level and Donovan is concerned that incidents such as this will discourage more players feeling able to to do the same.
He wants harsher penalties, including points deductions, to be brought in by governing bodies and leagues to ensure football clubs are unable to ignore discriminatory behaviour internally.
“Hopefully if we get this behaviour out of the game, it will be more and more comfortable for people to be themselves and not have to worry about being discriminated against,” Donovan said.
“Incidents like this don’t encourage people to come out because you don’t want to be subjected to that.
“I played with a gay player, Robbie Rogers, who played at Leeds, and it’s really difficult for someone like that to make a powerful message and come out. But that should be normalised.”