Although often overlooked in the world of sports media, there is a second tier of professional soccer in the United States, The United Soccer League Championship (USL). Divulging itself out of the dark, the he USL has been thrust into the spotlight after Jamican international Junior Flemmings, a midfielder and forward for the Phoenix Rising and league’s leading scorer, was suspended six games for using a homophobic slur during a match on Sept. 30 against the San Diego Loyal. The USL investigation handing down the suspension included interviews with 11 people, including players, coaches and match officials, along with the referee and his assistants. Flemings’ suspension includes the playoffs and a fine of an undisclosed amount.
Flemmings directed the slur at Collin Martin, a midfielder for the Loyal who is currently the only openly gay player in the USL (Martin came out in 2018 while playing with MLS side Minnesota United).
According to Martin, the altercation began at the end of stoppage time, right before the halftime break, as Flemmings protested a yellow card that was given to one of his teammates. When Martin told Flemmings to stop complaining, the Phoenix midfielder responded with profanity.. While Martin initially ignored Flemming’s comments, he then made a comment about the exchange to one of Flemmings’ teammates. Flemmings overhead it, and his cussing escalated to use of a homophobic slur. Matters worsened when Martin tried to get the referee’s attention but was shown a red card because the referee thought that Martin was insulting him. The referee rescinded the card immediately after it was given and explained the citation, but the damage was done.
Later, the game’s referee acknowledged he heard the slur, but was unsure what it meant, since Flemmings used a term not typically used in the United States. San Diego Loyal coach Landon Donovan asked the Phoenix coach Rick Schanz to step in and bench Flemmings after he learned what happened. Schanz did not. Instead, Schanz defended his player, even downplaying the impact of homophobia.
All this occurred only a week after the Loyal decided to forfeit their 1-1 draw against Los Angeles Galaxy II because the Loyal’s Elijah Martin (no relation to Collin Martin) received racial slurs from LA defender Omar Onterivos during the match (Onterivos was released by the club later that week). After that game, the Loyal decided that if another slur was used against one of their teammates, they would take action. Although they were leading the match 3-1 when the incident occurred, every Loyal player took a knee when the whistle blew, then walked off the field a few seconds later when the team came back out to the field for the second half and saw Flemmings was still on the pitch. They forfeited the game, and in turn, lost all chances of qualifying for this season’s playoffs. Despite the Loyal having the lead at halftime, the league decided that the match would count as a 3-0 win for Phoenix due to the Loyal not finishing the match.
Flemmings initially denied saying anything, saying he was “disappointed” with the Loyal’s actions and claiming that he was not given an opportunity to defend himself. Prior to the release of the league’s findings in the investigation, Rising coach Schanz released a statement apologizing for his actions. He and explained he did not understand the situation at the time and that his first instinct was to protect his player and his team, and acknowledged his comments were wrong.
In the aftermath of the match, the USL announced that it would partner with the Institute for Sport and Social Justice to provide players and staff “league-wide sensitivity training and education … ahead of the 2021 season.” As of right now, Flemmings is on leave until the end of his current contract on Nov. 30, and could face additional discipline from the Rising, not just the league. Rising coach Rick Schantz was also placed on administrative leave, and could face discipline from the league in the coming days. The Rising will play Sacramento Republic FC in the USL Quarterfinals on Oct. 10.
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and it’s expected that societal prejudices will find their way into sport. Even now, in leagues across the country and the world, racist and homophobic slurs directed at players from fans and coaches alike are a more common occurance than many would like to admit. But that two incidents could happen to one team in such close proximity to each other is indicative of how far the leagues have to go before this type of behavior is eliminated in soccer. And, while there is still a lot to do, the sanctions and swift punishment of Flemmings and Onterivos are a show of the commitment that clubs like the Loyal and the Rising, and leagues like the USL have to improve in those areas.