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San Diego Loyal

The power of refusing to play: Landon Donovan's 'people first, players second' solution to racism and abuse

3:30 PM EST 12/8/20
Joules Garcia Goal 1
The U.S soccer icon outlines his compassionate, considered approach to dealing with abuse and reflects on his team's recent experiences with it

Just imagine it.

You’re in a packed stadium watching your team, basking in that unparalleled, euphoric high.

But all of a sudden, the mood at the ground changes.

Someone nearby is hurling racist chants at a player on the pitch. You might feel a combination of anger, shame – and also maybe some unease.

You want to tell them to shut up, though don’t want to get involved physically. But shouldn’t someone stand up for the player?

What’s the use if they get caught, if they’re only handed a stadium ban and possibly a fine? They wouldn’t be the last fans to be so hateful. Lather, rinse, repeat. Fines and bans don’t eradicate prejudice.

But wait. The referee blows the whistle. Your team’s captain – the talisman of your club, the one-of-a-kind homegrown talent – peels the armband off his arm, places it on the ground, pats the shoulder of player who was harassed, and walks off the pitch and down the tunnel.

The entire stadium is stunned into silence.

And then one by one, his team-mates follow their skipper’s lead and walk off the pitch as well. They are joined by opposition players, who put their arms around the shoulder of the player who had been abused. The players don’t return. The game has been forfeited. Neither team receives points.

In some cases, the forfeit costs you a spot in the knockout phases of a tournament – a goal certain teams have been working to reach for years, if not decades.

But it's a tiny price to pay for standing up to hateful beliefs.

On September 30, USL Championship side San Diego Loyal, managed by legendary former U.S. men’s national team star Landon Donovan, were leading 3-1 against Phoenix Rising and well-positioned for a spot in the play-offs.

Everything changed, however, when the team walked off the pitch to protest the homophobic abuse directed at Collin Martin, the only openly gay player in the United States.

The team returned to the field after half-time only to take a knee before they walked off once again in solidarity with Martin, forfeiting the game.

It was an immensely powerful show of fellowship and support for Martin by his team-mates, with the Loyal players echoing the sentiment that more often than not, there are things much more important than soccer.

“Our identity is that we are people first, and players second,” Donovan tells Goal. “Of course we compete and we love to win. That's what we do. And at that moment with Collin, we knew very clearly what we stood for.

“If no one else was going to step up and make the situation right, we had no choice but to do what we did.”

San Diego Loyal’s decision to walk off the pitch is an act of poignance that comes during a time where racial and social injustices continue to have lasting and hurtful impacts on the game.

UEFA and other federations have protocols in place for racist behaviour at games, but they are rarely, if ever, exercised fully – and are largely ineffective.

Sport has always struggled with tackling prejudices such as racism, homophobia and xenophobia, with official leagues’ efforts to 'Say No to Racism' feeling like less of a genuine attempt to deal with the matter and instead a performative, empty-gestured PR stunt.

Clearly, stadium bans and fines are not effective ways to deal with racism and bigotry. So, what else can clubs and leagues do?

They can take matters into their own hands. Players can walk off the pitch, forfeit the points and call attention to the truly important matter. Collective action against a racist or homophobic individual that costs their team points could truly highlight the significance and severity of the issue – and actually start to invoke real, lasting change.

It’s time that walking off the pitch in solidarity reaches the highest level of professional football around the world.

A week before the incident involving Collin Martin, the same San Diego Loyal team were involved in a game where an LA Galaxy II player directed a racial slur against Elijah Martin, one of Loyal’s Black players.

The match ended in a 1-1 draw and the LA Galaxy II's Omar Ontiveros was suspended for seven matches by the USL. The Loyal players did not walk off the pitch in protest of Ontiveros’ alleged racism, but after the game they called for the match point to be forfeited.

“Our biggest regret was that we didn't do something about it at the time. And by do something, I mean walking off the field and bringing it up to the referee or their coach and making a bigger deal out of it,” recalls Donovan.

Their regret in not doing something further propelled them to leave the pitch in defiance against bigotry a week later, during the incident involving Martin.

“Sometimes, I feel like the world is trying to teach you lessons and it doesn't stop until you actually learn the lesson,” Donovan adds. “That lesson finally came a week later when the world presented another situation where we were forced to make a decision.

“Our decision was one where we could be either be complicit and allow that to happen, knowing full well that we would've won the game. But if we’d done that, nothing would have changed. Everything would have been the same.

“Alternatively, we could decide that life was bigger than that, and that our team-mate was bigger than that.”

Junior Flemmings, the player accused of calling Martin a homophobic slur, was suspended by the USL for six games and given a fine. Flemmings has denied using the slur, and called the allegations “false” on his since-deleted Twitter account.

Donovan, however, believes that simply removing Flemmings from the squad as punishment is not a positive step in learning how to reckon with bigotry within society.

“The question is, do you want to really make a change or do you want to just make the problem go away?” he says. “I think most of the time, sports leagues and teams would rather the problem go away quickly because they don't want the PR headache.”

Suspending or axing a player from the squad feels like a band-aid solution to a much bigger, wider, deeply troubling societal problem.

Donovan offers a more optimistic approach. His hope is that instead of the quick-fix approach involving suspensions and fines, these individuals can be educated and informed. This, he says, will get to the true heart of the matter and have meaningful, lasting effects.

“If you think through how people respond in our society and probably in the world, we unfortunately respond through punishment and consequences,” says Donovan. “I wish that weren't the case. I wish it could be through a conversation, or through enlightenment.

“But the reality is that people react to the consequences. The end result was that the players got cut from the team, but that wasn’t what we wanted. That wasn’t our intention.

“Everybody else was allowed to get on with it, like it was no big deal. That was frustrating because if you really want to make a real change, there needs to be more than that.”

Additionally, handing out individual punishments has its limits. What about the other players in the dressing room who might do the same? Collective action learning by way of a community, not just individually, is crucial.

“Our goal in all of this has not been about punishment. It's about educating,” continues Donovan. “We’re a team with an openly gay player.

“We have conversations with Collin that are not normal sports conversations. His team-mates have conversations that are not normal conversations, and other teams aren't having those sorts of conversations.”

And though prejudice is rooted deeper than certain vernacular, understanding the true meaning of hateful language could potentially go a long way.

“People will say, ‘Well, they're just words, get over it,'” Donovan continues. “I don't necessarily disagree with that in a one-off basis.

"However, I do realise that words influence actions, and actions influence your behaviour and beliefs. So, by saying that word, you might act a certain way towards someone, and then you might start to believe that that's the way they're supposed to be treated.

“And then, all of a sudden that's your belief system.”

For Donovan, education is a central step crucial to the fight in tackling social injustice in sport that should apply not to just athletes, but supporters as well.

While it is easier to identify individual players on the pitch and then placing them through an educational course to teach them why what they said wasn’t appropriate, it’s harder to apply the same approach for growth with fans in the stands, who are plentiful and harder to identify.

Plus, fan mentality is collective by nature. Even if one racist or homophobic supporter is identified, they are very likely doing so because they are reflecting the abhorrent ideology shared by their fan community.

So, what should you do then?

For Donovan, the same steps would apply. A player walking off the pitch to protest a supporter's discriminatory jeers is powerful because in that moment, the offender is directly at fault for the wellness of the team.

More severe measures need to take place, and not just by issuing punishments like bans or fines. By watching their beloved players walk off the pitch, the hope is that it would hit a nerve within them.

“The most powerful thing to do is walk off because now the fans are upset, the club’s upset, the league’s upset, and you have to actually do something right,” Donovan says.

“We've seen the incidents. It breaks my heart when a player has been racially abused – as you've seen this a lot in Europe – and the player's distraught by it and wants to leave the field, and one of their team-mates tries to talk them into keep continuing playing the game.”

Footballers – especially white, privileged, straight, male footballers – need to take more action with deeper consequences to combat racism by showing solidarity with their minority team-mates in a more tangible manner.

Imagine how powerful it would be for a star like Harry Kane or Jordan Henderson to walk off the pitch out of their own volition, stop the game and hold the bigots personally responsible for the failure of the team to collect points or get disqualified or fail to make the knockout stages.

“[The players should] stand by him or her and be an ally and help them and say, ‘I'm not standing for this either,’” adds Donovan. “I saw the pain in Collin. I can't forget that. I don't know what that feels like. I want to know understand why that is so painful.

“One of our core values with our club is compassion. I think it's valuable to have empathy and educate yourself.

“Collin, to some extent, also felt guilty about walking off the field because he knows how much the game meant to his team-mates. He didn’t want to be the person who's responsible for that. But he's got that obvious hurt.”

Donovan adds: “The sad part for both was that they [Collin and Elijah] both said to me at different times, ‘Well, this is just the way it is. People have been saying that [slur] to me my whole life.’

“That broke my heart. Nobody wants to hear that about someone they care about. That is exactly the problem – they don't see it as that big of a deal because it's been happening to them.

“You don't want anybody to feel scared to be themselves, especially in a public arena like that where they're just trying to do what they love.”

There will be those who feel it is unfair that the team, and they as supporters, also get punished by the actions of a few individuals.

But soccer isn’t an individual sport – it is a collective team effort. If a player commits an own goal and loses the game, the entire team loses. It’s the same principle.

For abusive fans to have their team’s success taken away from them, to be at fault for costing their team in the league or a cup game, and to be disrespected by the players they worship the most and they consider untouchable?

It would be the most powerful and poignant punishment of all.