LANDON Donovan, one of the United States most respected footballers, recently ordered his players to abandon a football match following a homophobic slur against one of his players.

The San Diego Loyal players and management decided to make a symbolic protest in what has been a recent shift in societal and sporting behaviour towards any form of discrimination.

“It’s the world’s biggest sport by a million miles,” Donovan stated.

“So why don’t we use it in a way that’s positive and powerful?”

2020 was the newly formed San Diego Loyal’s first in the USL Championship, the American game’s second tier league.

The decision to protest against any form of discrimination is not a new one for the team.

They were in play-off contention until the closing stages of the season, when they forfeited a game against LA Galaxy II after one of their players, Elijah Martin, was racially abused.

This was followed by the homophobic slur aimed at Collin Martin, a midfielder who is gay, in a recent fixture against Phoenix Rising.

Martin is the only out gay player in US men’s professional soccer.

For his part, Martin was emotionally moved by the support of his teammates and their decision to sacrifice the game in the name of equality.

Martin says it was a “collective decision” by San Diego Loyal to walk off the pitch.

“They had my back and wanted to make a statement that we aren’t going to stand for this hate in our game,” he said.

Donovan, 39, is new to the managerial ranks. Nevertheless, he is passionate about using the sport where he made his name in the United States as a vehicle for change. He represented his country 157 times in an illustrious career.

“The context matters quite a bit,” Donovan said.

“The week previously we had a player racially abused.

“He heard it and one other player on our team heard it but they didn’t say anything to anybody else.

“After the match they were quite upset about it in the locker room and it was a pretty disturbing moment for our team.

“So we made the decision that if this were to happen again, we were going to say something.

“Maybe we don’t stop the match, maybe we don’t walk off, but we needed to say something to their coach, to the referee. We needed to let people know because it’s not OK just to carry on with that.

“Of course, as fate has it, the next week a player on our team who is openly gay had a homophobic slur hailed at him.

“It was right before half-time. We went in at half-time and I have never been in a locker room like that in my life.

“He was devastated. The team was trying to figure out what to do because the emotion was going, the adrenalin was going. They were beating the best team in the league 3-1 at home. Everyone was excited about it.

“But, he’s their team-mate and a guy they have grown to love over the course of the season.

Clearly, the rights of the individual for respect and equality is now a non-negotiable in so many areas of society.

No longer is it morally, or legally, acceptable to discriminate and vilify based on one’s race, colour, age, gender, religion, disability or social status.

Donovan was at lengths to explain:

“So in the end we made the decision that if the (opposition) player wasn’t removed from the game, either through being sent off, his coach removing him or him removing himself, we weren’t going to continue.

“I said that to the official and I said that to the coach, I said if he’s not off the field then we are not going to play.

“Maybe they didn’t believe it, but when they made the decision not to, we decided we had to walk off.”

The players had re-emerged for the second half but chose to take the knee before leaving.

Indeed, they had previously chosen to forfeit the point they earned against LA Galaxy II after a 1-1 draw upon learning of the racial abuse aimed at Elijah Martin.

“If people are going to allow that to happen, I don’t want to be a part of that.

“This weekend there will be hundreds of soccer games around the world. It’s just one game, but it meant a lot to a lot of people who don’t have allies and don’t have people sticking up for them, so I was really proud of our guys.”

The USL handed a six-game ban to Elijah Martin’s abuser, Omar Ontiveros, who also “mutually agreed to part ways” with LA Galaxy II.

Jamaica international Junior Flemmings was the player identified and subsequently banned by the USL for a total of 6 matches over the homophobic comment aimed at Collin Martin.

The aftermath remains unresolved, however. Donovan is adamant that Flemmings must take responsibility for his actions 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.”

Fortunately, Phoenix Rising general manager Bobby Dulle appeared to agree with Donovan. He sees it as an opportunity to “learn from this moment” and “educate ourselves”.

Donovan responded:

“The goal is never to ruin somebody’s life because they made a mistake or made a dumb comment. We have all done dumb things or said something stupid or something we regret.

“That’s not the goal. The goal is how do we get it out of our game?

“Whether we like it or not, we are role models. People are paying attention, people are watching.

“You just can’t do that. You can’t do it anywhere in society, but we have an added responsibility so we can’t allow that to happen.”

Donovan believes sanctioning clubs rather than individuals would help rid football of discrimination.

“People react when there are consequences,” he says. “So if their club had been docked 10 points and they were out of the play-offs because this happened, I can promise you heading into this pre-season, they would have a lot of sensitivity training to help the players understand why this is important.

“But hopefully more than that, not just because there are consequences, but (training would) help people understand that hey, that’s actually quite hurtful to somebody to say that.

“You might not think it’s that big a deal, but this kid has been dealing with this his whole life.

“People have been calling him gay or slurs his whole life. That’s not okay.

“So once you start that process, aside from teams being proactive so they don’t get docked points – because let’s be honest that what they care about – you would also start to create a change in people’s behaviours.

“So they wouldn’t do it on the field and eventually – I do believe this and there’s science to back this up – when you change behaviour, it changes your beliefs over time.”

Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari believes San Diego Loyal’s decision to forfeit a match over alleged homophobic abuse has “taken the genie out of the bottle.”

Bhandari said the actions of Loyal manager Donovan and his players were “amazingly powerful”.

“If players feel they want to walk off, they should,” Bhandari added.

“Once somebody has done that it won’t be long before someone else does the same if they’re in a similar circumstance.”

Kick It Out has recently launched its new initiative Take A Stand, alongside social media platforms Instagram and Facebook, who are building an automated messenger service to enable fans to report abuse directly to the anti-discrimination body.

Nevertheless, Ludo Aequitas believes more needs to be done. It has addressed this most complex issue previously and has a unique cognitive-behavioural strategy that is waiting to be implemented globally.

The key is to change an individual’s deep seated belief systems, rather than punitive measures.

Ludo Aequitas – Equality Through Sport – warrants your support.


Image via US Soccer Players

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