Sports to me, should bring out the best in people.

In my eyes the playing field, the track, the ring, wherever the game is played is sacred ground.

“Over the hill” viewpoint? You can say it. “Old School” viewpoint? Yep, it is, and I own it.

I get it from my late father. As a coach, he didn’t tolerate undue celebration, end zone dances, trash talking or any of what he sniffed at as “celebrity, hot-dog, showboat” aspects of sports.

“Act like you been there before and act like you’ll be back again,” he’d tell a much younger me.

We are talking about a man who, once during a ballgame, when I acted in an unsporting manner, he called a timeout, marched onto the field, and marched me off the field and to the bench.

“I might let you back in when you cool off!” he said gruffly.

To him, sportsmanship, teamwork, decorum where the centerpieces of that sacred ground. Those are values I hold dear.

Racial slurs defile that sacred ground. Slurs based on someone’s gender identity or orientation defile that sacred ground.

The United Soccer League Championship side San Diego Loyal SC, in their actions during their match on September 30, stood against the defilement of that pitch.

Manager Landon Donovan drew that line when he confronted Phoenix Rising FC manager Rick Schantz: “We have to get this out of our game.”

This occurred after a collision between Loyal midfielder Collin Martin and Rising midfielder Junior Flemmings. Chippy words were reportedly exchanged, including the term “batty boy” by Flemmings.

The term is one Martin has heard before, among many other slights and slurs, as an openly gay man. In Jamaican patois, “batty boy” is an anti-gay slur. In popular culture, it’s perhaps best known from a 1992 hit dancehall reggae song by Buju Banton.

That’s how I first heard of it. It was at a college party that year.

Boom bye bye inna batty bwoy head. Rude bwoy nah promote no nasty man. Dem haffi dead.

Roughly translated, the lyric calls for handling what Flemmings reportedly termed the “situation” of being gay with gunshots to the head.

There are those who will say “sticks and stones,” but that old school thinking is not appropriate here. To quote Collin Martin’s statement after the match, “It’s the first time in my eight-year playing career that a slur has been directed at me during the game.”

This should be the last time, too. Verbal violence is just that — violence. To those who say “sticks and stones” in this situation in 2020, I say NO. We know better. We need to do better.

The Rising’s manager downplayed the matter as, “they were just playing soccer”. He said that to Donovan when confronted. What he said, and what Flemmings is accused of saying, have resulted in consequences. More about this in a moment.

The Loyal players took a knee in solidarity with Martin, and then they left the field. This match was over. They forfeited, took the loss, and effectively eliminated themselves from playoff contention.

This was two incidents in consecutive matches for the club. On September 25, in a match against LA Galaxy II, Loyal midfielder Elijah Martin (no relation) was the target of the “N-word” from Galaxy II defender Omar Ontiveros. No action was taken during the match. Reports stated that the incident occurred within earshot of the Galaxy coaching staff, yet no discipline was taken by the Galaxy coaches against Ontiveros.

Elijah Martin (#3 in white), was the target of a racial slur in the Loyal’s match against L.A. Galaxy II on Sept. 25.

After the match however, the Loyal choose to forfeit a tie result in protest. The referee levied an additional red card to Ontiveros at the end of match which added to USL-mandated six-game suspension. The Galaxy then released Ontiveros from the team.

The strife of both incidents wore on Donovan, perhaps as much as any heckling suffered at a World Cup qualifying match did as part of his sensational playing career. Contrary to the belief of the opposing coach, who asked the second most-capped player in US Men’s National Team history “how long have you been playing soccer?” I would say the manager of the San Diego Loyal has a rather wide base of knowledge of what happens on the pitch.

“We made a vow to ourselves, to our community, to our players, to the club, to the USL that we would not stand for bigotry, homophobic slurs, things that don’t belong in our game,” he explained.

“Old School” Sensibilities

I will admit to my old school sensibilities screaming “NO!” when hearing, and seeing, this story play out, and witnessing the Loyal walking off the pitch. I am a believer in the concept of “ballfield justice.” I admit to it. I own it. I do believe that when met with such ignorance in the game, performance is a tool to fight back.

Don’t get it twisted. I salute what the Loyal did in taking such a stand. The cause is beyond being right. It's a no-brainer to me. But I did struggle to understand how the Loyal went about making this statement, and perhaps a small piece of me always will, especially with a 3-1 lead and a playoff spot within reach.

Much of that comes from my own experiences similar to what the Loyal have seen in their last two matches. Pondering this discussion took me back to a moment as a not-quite-teen on a team, and being targeted with anti-Black vitriol by the team we were playing. We were kids from “that part of town” against the suburban kids. We were down 12-6 at halftime and fuming about what was being said.

I remember our head coach talking to the other team’s coach the same way Landon Donovan did. I remember the pleas of our coach being downplayed and ignored.

I remember our coach saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right. We are not gonna take bad penalties in anger. We are going to stick together, focus, and score points.”

I remember my dad and mom saying to me, a young Black child , circa 1981, “You think this is bad? Wait until high school and college and in the workplace,” my dad said. “Unfortunately, this ignorance you are seeing is a part of life. How will you rise above it?”

As a team, we rose above it that day. We held them scoreless the rest of the game. We scored 6 unanswered touchdowns in that second half. I don’t think we shook their hands after that game.

Collin Martin, shown here fighting through in a match earlier in the month, came out publicly in 2018.

Seeing the San Diego Loyal players stand united and leave that pitch, knowing what they would lose with the stand, makes me ponder: Is the concept of “ballfield justice” possibly passé today?

The World Was Watching

Tweet, posts and opinions from around the world are applauding what a soccer side in the United States did in a moment of truth. It’s quite a sight to see so much support. Parents note how they are using this moment to talk to their kids about this issue. A lot of hardcore fans approve, even in places such as the UK and continental Europe. Fans who, in some ways, have a lesser view of soccer in the United States are tipping their hats in honor to what a team in the USA did to help kick racism and homophobia out of soccer (they call it football).

Yes, there are some people who saw it the way I first saw it, but most looked at the action and saw a team standing up for a teammate and standing for a greater principle. They concluded that continuing to play in a space were bigotry went unpunished defiles the pitch.

They lived the slogan they preached as a soccer club in this last week – “I will speak. I will act”.

Actions Have Consequences

As I write this, there has been further action. Phoenix Rising has placed Schantz and Flemmings on administrative leave pending an investigation along with the USL.

The USL also announced Thursday that all players and staff will a undergo mandatory training and education on diversity and inclusion issues. The program will be administered in partnership with the Institute of Sport and Social Justice. The ISSJ has current partnerships with each other the largest entities of North American sports. As this program gets up to speed, I hope that both Ontiveros and Flemmings will be sitting at the front of the class taking copious notes.

I would like to see our regional confederation, CONCACAF, also get in the game. I think it would set the right tone especially with World Cup qualifying matches to resume in March 2021. A potential CONCACAF sanction would directly affect Flemmings, who has 10 caps with Jamaica’s national team and was having the type of season with Phoenix Rising that would put him on the short list of call-ups Jamaica’s World Cup qualifying effort. Based on the evidence we’ve seen thus far, such sanction is in order.

What If?

Say the Loyal had done it the “old school” way and played on. Perhaps they get the three points in a win, a playoff berth and make the statement that needed to be made. Would we be having the conversation we are having now? Would the spotlight be lesser or greater? I’d like to think that old fashioned “ballfield justice” still has a place, and in some instances in the present day, it may.

However, I can plainly see why the Loyal chose this response. Choosing the point of attack with all results it entailed made a pointed, powerful statement that resonated and sparked much-needed dialogue.

I can see where this action was the best move for the moment. Not just in the united front of the team but in how it was a catalyst in growing a united front of supporters and fans who understand that just as we’ve all had to evolve on so many issues right now, sports need to evolve. That evolution is something that gives me hope in this moment and for the future ahead.

We will speak. We will act. The “old school/ballfield justice” part of me? She’ll catch up.