By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 15, 2020) US Soccer Players - Landon Donovan has had a memorable opening chapter to his management career, to say the least. The USMNT legend recently completed an eventful first season with USL Championship expansion side San Diego Loyal, where he serves as head coach, co-founder, and vice president of soccer operations.
As if the COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions didn't visit enough disruption and controversy, the new club finished its debut campaign with forfeits in their final two matches. The first was by Loyal's own volition, as they sought to repudiate their involvement in a 1-1 draw at LA Galaxy II on September 23 when they learned that a Galaxy player had directed a racial epithet at San Diego player Elijah Martin during play.
A week later, Loyal found themselves in a similar situation in their season finale against Phoenix Rising. In that game, Phoenix's Junior Flemmings allegedly directed a homophobic slur at Loyal midfielder Collin Martin (no relation), who is openly gay. Under Donovan's leadership, Loyal's players huddled together and eventually elected to walk off the pitch as a group in protest when referee Joseph Salinas and Rising coach Rick Schantz declined to discipline or remove Flemmings.
"Candidly, it's not enjoyable. What would have been enjoyable is finishing out the game the way we started the game, and beating a really good team," Donovan told USSoccerPlayers.com earlier this month. "But when you spend six hours a day with 25 young men, it's impossible not to feel like a father figure. And for anyone who has children, if you witness your child or pseudo-child treated that way, it's hard not to be emotional about it. In the end, we did something very powerful and made the right decision."
Their stand vacated the results of a game where they dominated a 1st-place team, ending their hopes of playoff qualification, and made headlines around the world. Ironically, the two teams had planned pregame to pause play in the 71st minute and jointly display a banner with the message "I will speak, I will act" in a statement about the racism directed towards Elijah Martin the week before. That gesture didn't happen because Loyal felt compelled to act in support of Collin Martin first.
"After the game I was texting with a bunch of my former coaches and a bunch of former teammates who are now coaches, and I basically said, 'guys, none of you ever told me it would be like this,'" Donovan noted with a chuckle. "I thought I would lose hair – like, lose the last of my hair – because we'd go on like a four- or five-game losing streak, but I never expected it to be like this. So it was interesting to say the least.… Instead of gaining one year of experience, I probably gained like four or five years."
The Loyal-Rising episode was amplified and illuminated by the close attentions of a quick-thinking ESPN+ camera operator who captured most of the conversation between Donovan, Salinas, and Schantz. USL subsequently confirmed that Loyal would forfeit the game, effectively conceding that the league had no real rules or mechanisms in place to fully address such a situation.
"In fairness to the league, it's not easy to just unilaterally do something in this instance. because you have 35 teams and owners who have to go through a process of voting on things," said Donovan. "I want to be really clear on this: The goal is not to destroy the player's career, destroy the coach's career, destroy the club or destroy the league. The goal is to make this a really powerful teaching moment that everybody can learn and grow from. Yes, we were the ones who suffered in the standings. But that's OK. That's a choice we made very clear in the moment. And so we're OK with that, we don't need retribution in that way and we also don't need retribution via severe punishment that leaves someone unable to come back and have a life and have a career. We have no interest in that. That is not our desire."
Donovan and his club aim to help shift the paradigm in a deeper way.
"Our desire is to make lasting change that actually matters. And the way you do that, in my opinion, is you help everyone learn from it," he explained. "You help educate people – myself included, by the way. I don't know what it's like to be called that, I'm just sticking up for my players. But I don't know what that feels like. So, having open dialogue and discussion with people to understand why this language is so painful, why we need to eradicate it from our society, and then move forward in a way that is beneficial to everyone."
This year huge swathes of the sporting world have become markedly more aware and outspoken about a range of issues, from police brutality and systemic racism to the fight against prejudice and the importance of political participation. In explicitly placing their principles ahead of their own competitive interests, San Diego may have shown us what the next steps beyond armbands and displays may look like.
"If we had just let it happen, finished out the game, and then said something after the game, you and I wouldn't probably be talking right now, right? We wouldn't have had the reaction that we had. So I wish it didn't have to be that way, but that's the reality, until we get to a place where we're actually changing behavior, and changing beliefs," said Donovan. "We all had a big decision to make, because it would have probably been a little bit easier to just sweep it under the rug and let it go. But the reality is that if we're not willing to walk the walk, then all the gestures and armbands and kneeling, they don't mean sh*t. They don't mean anything. So now, they do mean something if you are willing to act and speak when it happens."
On one hand, this controversy showed how much work remains. On the other, it provided a glimpse of a new path forward. Donovan says he's deeply proud of his players for their decision, which has helped him advance along what he considers his own journey towards truer understanding and awareness.
"We live in a society where people react based on what the consequences might be, so I do think consequences are important, but I also would like to see consequences for the clubs, so that if one of my players next year makes a homophobic slur, we are punished in a real way, so that we are forced to proactively educate, and teach our players that this is not acceptable," he said.
"In my opinion, that's the way you eradicate that behavior,"Donovan continued. "And then once you start teaching people that that behavior is not acceptable, people's actions now become their beliefs, right? So I'll give you an example. I have a very dear friend who always says to me, every time I say 'spokesman,' or 'congressman,' she always says, 'or a woman, or a person.' And so now, when I'm about to say 'spokesman,' I say 'spokesperson,' and that actually changes the way I look at women in general. It really does. I don't want to be overly dramatic, but it does. My habits and my behavior change my beliefs. And so I think if we do that, you actually start changing the way people act, and then ultimately the way people believe, around them. Which is the ultimate way to effectuate change."
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
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Logo courtesy of San Diego Loyal