Three weeks after dismissing the impact of homophobic language in a professional soccer match, Phoenix Rising FC manager Rick Schantz’s team suspension is being lifted and he is returning to full-time duties with the club.
In an exclusive interview with Outsports, Schantz said he is an evolving man and will use his position to proactively advance LGBTQ inclusion in sports and society at large.
“It’s been an awakening,” Schantz told Outsports. “It’s really opened my eyes. I feel like I can be a better human being if I learn more things about the LGBTQ community. It’s become more important to me every day.”
To recap, in a Sept. 30 USL Championship match between the Phoenix Rising and San Diego Loyal, the latter’s Collin Martin — the rare publicly out gay man in professional sports — claimed Rising player Junior Flemmings directed a gay slur at him. Loyal manager Landon Donovan asked Rising manager Rick Schantz to remove Flemming from the match. Schantz refused.
“Come on man, don’t make a big scene,” Schantz said, dismissing the impact of the gay slur on the gay athlete.
At the start of the second half, with the Loyal up, 3-0, the Loyal players walked off the pitch and forfeited the match, ending their playoff hopes. It was a statement of epic proportions. Rising have since abandoned the points they earned for the forfeit win.
Both Schantz and Flemmings were suspended. Flemmings, who denies he used the slur, was also put on administrative leave by the club through the end of his contract.
Now Schantz is on his way back to competition.
Since the incident, Schantz has been on a listening tour. He said that on the pitch that night, he had no idea that what he said was problematic. None. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, Schantz told Outsports that he was raised in an era and a location where homophobic language was commonplace and generally viewed as accepted. While it may be hard to believe, he maintains that he just didn’t know.
After the incident, Schantz said he truly wanted to understand the LGBTQ community better. His job was in the balance, no doubt. Yet he said he wanted to understand his mistake beyond the matter of keeping his job. He wanted to be a better person for his community and for his family.
Seeing him back in his role with the club so soon after the incident will be a tough pill to swallow for some people, and in particular some people in the LGBTQ community. The club has advanced to the USL Championship semifinals, to be played this Saturday. To many, it will look like yet another sports organization sweeping yet another incident of homophobia under the proverbial rug.
Frankly, that was my reaction when I first heard the news. While I advocated for Schantz to not be fired, I was skeptical of his return to the sideline on Monday.
Then I got the chance to talk to him. There was a genuine nature to his tone and a sincere willingness to listen and change — rooted in a love for his family and a need to be a better person in today’s society. He couldn’t have been more remorseful or apologetic.
“I apologize because I was unaware of how my actions hurt so many people,” he told me Monday afternoon, shortly after a team meeting. “Until I realized what my unconscious biases are, and the fact that I just tolerated the LGBTQ community, I just didn’t realize that ‘tolerating’ isn’t the same as ‘accepting.’
“Tolerating is not inclusion. So I would say that given my unconscious and conscious biases, and the inability to pay attention to the world at large, my eyes have been opened, and thankfully in a public forum.
“Now I have this position where I can do more.”
Is the sudden 180 by Schantz sincere?
The question I always ask in these situations is whether the person is actually remorseful for the hurt their actions caused, or they’re remorseful because they got caught and had to pay a price for it.
Time will tell with Schantz, and I made that clear to him on our phone call. But my gut tells me — after our conversation — that he knows he messed up, he knows he perpetuated homophobia in society and in sports in a way that truly hurt people, and he sincerely wants to make amends. He wants to be part of the solution, and Rising very clearly want that as well. The club is demanding it.
He told me about talking with a Rising fan, a straight man who has a teenage daughter who’s come out to her family. He told me that conversation opened his eyes because he has a young daughter too, and the idea of creating a future in which she or her friends may not feel good about being themselves — whether they are LGBTQ or not — hurt him personally.
“It was very powerful, and it forced me to say, ‘I’m sorry,’ to say I’m sorry to his daughter and to all the young kids who may have heard my actions and now feel they can’t be who they are. That was hard.”
Schantz has talked to a lot of people across the LGBTQ community in the last couple of weeks, all in an effort to understand the impact of his mistakes and the struggles of a community he admits he has not understood for most of his life.
Part of that has been reaching out on Twitter to various Rising fans who publicly scolded him for his actions, to both apologize and listen. One of those people in particular has stuck in his mind. That gay woman told him very clearly that his actions hurt her personally. It was hard for him to hear.
“I feel it’s important for me to listen,” Schantz said. “I have 46 years of unconscious and conscious bias to figure out and change. And it’s important to get out in the community and be an advocate and an ally. And I can’t do that until I learn more.”
He talked to Landon Donovan, the soccer superstar and Loyal coach with whom Schantz had argued during the match. Before joining the Loyal, Donovan was a team captain with the LA Galaxy and a teammate of Robbie Rogers, who was publicly out as a gay man while with the club.
Schantz also called Collin Martin.
“Rick has apologized to me personally and I accept that apology as genuine,” Martin said in a statement. “We all come to our education on issues at different times, and he is beginning to understand the pain and disappointment he caused his team, the fans and the LGBTQ community.”
The conversations have been eye-opening, Schantz said, in part because of how willing people in the community have been to be honest and at the same time give him a second chance. Anger and hurt have come through in every conversation, yet the LGBTQ people he’s spoken to have all seen the power of redemption and the possibility that he could become a true agent of positive change and inclusion.
Every single LGBTQ person Schantz has contacted has been willing to give him a second chance, to help him on his journey. That speaks volumes about the LGBTQ sports community and each person’s willingness to build bridges, not walls.
Is it too early for Schantz to be back on the sideline?
Yet the question remains, should a coach who so casually dismissed the impact of homophobic language be back on the sideline just three weeks after doing so? How could Schantz possibly, in such a short period of time, have transformed?
To his credit, Schantz will admit this personal journey is only beginning. He has a long way to go before he’s the LGBTQ supporter he wants to be. Despite that, he thinks that going on this journey while simultaneously coaching his players, and doing it all out in the open in front of them and the public, can help bring everyone along on his journey.
“Showing the willingness to learn, to improve, to make mistakes, to fix them, that’s what we ask our athletes to do all the time. We ask our athletes to assess, analyze, practice, to become better players. And now I get to prove it, I get to live it.”
“I see no reason not to give him my blessing and an opportunity to prove that someone can change,” Martin said. “The sooner Rick is back working with his team and our league, the sooner he can begin his role as an ally in advancing LGBTQ equality and acceptance in professional sports.”
The move certainly comes at a key juncture. Rising just earned a spot in the conference finals last Saturday, edging Reno 1868 in penalty kicks. This Saturday they play El Paso Locomotive FC for a spot in the league championship game.
The team’s situation did play a role in Schantz’s reinstatement, but partly not for the reason you might think. According to Curtis Steinhoff, a gay businessman in the Phoenix area who is an advisor to Rising board of directors and is working with Schantz on his journey, the directors of the club want to use their moment to shine a light on the mistakes Schantz made, his journey to acceptance, and the broader issue of LGBTQ inclusion.
Think about that. People across sports have made dubious claims for years about gay athletes and LGBTQ issues being a “distraction” to sports. Yet a professional club wants to use its spot in the league semifinals to elevate the conversation.
That’s a powerful statement.
Will this all work out in the favor of the LGBTQ community? It’s really up to Schantz and Rising. Schantz said he has reached out to You Can Play to hopefully develop a conversation with both players and staff about LGBTQ inclusion. He said he and the club are also creating LGBTQ-inclusion posters to hang in the facility, and are also adding “inclusion” to the list of the club’s core values.
In the coming weeks Schantz has conversations scheduled with various people in the Pheonix LGBTQ community, including a roundtable with members of the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League and the LGBTQ Rising fan who took him to task on Twitter.
“I can’t just say, ‘trust me,’ because I know I lost that trust,” Schantz said. “But I want to earn that trust back.”
Club leadership said in a statement that they believe Schantz is on the right path and deserves a second chance starting now.
“During his administrative leave, Rick has dedicated himself to listening to members of the LGBTQ community and learning about the difference between tolerance and acceptance,” said Phoenix Rising FC governor Berke Bakay. “I have witnessed a sincere commitment in him to use this public platform as head coach of our club to amplify the importance of equality and inclusion in professional sports.”
One thing Schantz told me in particular lingered with me. It’s something I’ve heard over and over again from people who have made these mistakes, whose thoughts and actions may be stuck in a time years ago when homophobia was socially and culturally accepted.
While we talk about the power of homophobia in the world of sports, so much of the decisions and actions of people in sports stem from love of family. It’s something I’ve heard from both Cincinnati Reds broadcaster Thom Brennaman and UC-Irvine men’s basketball coach Russell Turner — two men in sports who have recently dealt with similar issues: the need to be a positive influence on their families and make sure their kids know they will love them no matter what.
It’s something my dad just reiterated to me this weekend. Love of family — and being a positive role model for kids — is deeply powerful, and it’s the same for these men.
That came through in my conversation with Schantz. It resonated and gave me confidence that he will be an agent for positive change for months and years to come.
“I owe it to my family,” Schantz said. “I need to be a better human being. You only get so long on this earth to impact people, and I don’t want to impact people negatively. I don’t want people to associate my name with ‘this coach who’s a bigot and said something homophobic.’ I want to fix that, and I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
You can follow Rick Schantz on Twitter @RickSchantz1. You can follow Phoenix Rising @PHXRisingFC.
If you’re an LGBTQ coach looking for support or to meet other LGBTQ people in your profession, join Equality Coaching Alliance on Facebook.