On Sunday night, Alan Gordon, a player who plays for the San Jose Earthquakes - the league's reigning Supporters' Shield winners - and as recently as October was playing for the U.S. national team in a World Cup qualifier, aimed a homophobic slur at Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson.
Gordon issued the now standard apology a few hours after the game.
"I sincerely apologize for what I said in our game tonight," read a statement on the Earthquakes' official site. "Although I said it in the heat of the moment, that language has no place in our game. That is not my character, but there is still no excuse for saying what I said. I made a mistake and I accept full responsibility for my actions."
It would be an unfortunate incident if it hadn't happened before. But it has. Houston's Colin Clark was fined and suspended last March for directing the same slur at a ball boy. Seattle defender Marc Burch was fined and suspended for using the same slur in November. And if one is an example and two is a coincidence, three occurrences is a worrying trend from a league and community usually regarded as one of the most accepting in sports.
Advocates for gay rights say the league has made positive steps, but it's not enough, not yet.
"I think the league is doing a much better job this season than last by getting out their 'Don't Cross the Line' message out, featuring it very prominently in broadcasts and stadiums this year," said Chris Billig, founder of gay4soccer, in an email to Goal.com. "With no out players and incidents like this, I do think that more should be done on the issue of eliminating homophobia and welcoming of LGBT players, fans, and staff, much like the NHL and NHLPA did last week with their formal partnership with the You Can Play Project."
Gordon will get his fine and his three-match suspension, and in a few weeks there will be a story about how he talked with a gay person or a gay rights group and is a better, more understanding human being, because that's what happens now when a player hurls a slur. Apologize, accept your punishment, have a learning experience, and don't do it again. It's better than nothing, surely, but it's not exactly working.
Part of the problem is the example set by the league's own actions. The Philadelphia Union count restaurant Chick-Fil-A, whose charitable arm, the WinShape Foundation, and whose owners actively fund political campaigns and groups fighting against equality, among their sponsors. The pair run a promotion every match to identify a "Chick-Fil-A family of the game," even though Chick-Fil-A's definition of a family would exclude families that don't look the way Chick-Fil-A's owners think a family should look.
The Union, under criticism, issued a statement in which the club claimed "Philadelphia Union does not support the views expressed by certain individuals within the Chick-Fil-A organization."
Perhaps not, but it will gladly accept their money and promote their brand, a brand whose largesse is used to deny rights and dignity to people MLS insists should not be excluded. At what point do good intentions and slick promotional videos become cynical PR moves? Based on the league's actions, are "don't cross the line" videos and equality nights about making people feel safe to express themselves and support their teams, or are they "dollar dog night" by another name?
"I do think a partnership like the one with Chick-Fil-A does raise some fans' eyebrows when seen on the same messaging boards as 'Don't Cross the Line,'" explained Billig. "It's nice to have sponsors for the sport we love, but Chick-Fil-A was at the center of a firestorm over anti-gay donations last year and was a pretty poor marketing decision on the part of the Union that runs counter to their general support of LGBT issues."
Major League Soccer did not respond when asked for comment via email.
MLS, caving to widespread public pressure, canceled a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America last year, based on the organization's newly reaffirmed policy to exclude openly homosexual members. The message the league is sending seems to be that homophobia is wrong and will not be tolerated by any group associated with the league, unless you have enough money to convince it otherwise.
And when a number of MLS teams have hospitality or promotional or dance teams made up exclusively of attractive young women in their twenties, does that not set a precedent? Is it so far-fetched to imagine a child will come into an MLS stadium and see that gender divide, and conclude that in the real world men play soccer or work getting by on their skill, while women look pretty and use their looks to sell things? Attitudes like that reinforce restrictive, outdated gender roles and are what lead to situations where women earn more college degrees than men but are just three percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and earn 77 cents for every dollar a man does.
It's no wonder MLS players haven't bought into the league's message. Their bosses don't seem to care much. You can't call someone a slur, that's bad for business. Here's your fine and your suspension, and once you're back, you think about Major League Soccer's image and its bottom line before you open your mouth again.
Earlier this year, a former MLS star came out as gay and retired from the sport at the age of 25. There are players in the league who would use Robbie Rogers' sexuality, a defining part of his personal identity and sense of self, as an insult to bludgeon and beat him. There are sponsors partnered with league teams who would deny him the right to get married and start a family.
Sport should elevate us, inspire us, test our skill and our determination. Labels like sexuality and race should be irrelevant; all should be welcome and safe in the arena of competition as long as they do their best and play the game fairly. Major League Soccer didn't provide that arena for Robbie Rogers. It doesn't look ready to provide that for anyone.