The last time the Phoenix Rising played the San Diego Loyal, it was marred by a gay slur aimed at Collin Martin and a forfeit by his Loyal team.

Since then, lots has happened. Junior Flemmings, the player accused of using the gay slur, was suspended and then released by the Rising. He now plays for the Birmingham Legion.

Rising manager Rick Schantz was suspended for his mishandling of the incident during the match, brushing off the concerns raised by Loyal coach Landon Donovan.

The Rising forfeited the right to host the 2020 USL Championship match, which ultimately was never played due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

For their parts, Martin and Loyal manager Landon Donovan couldn’t have handled the entire situation any better, putting inclusion and respect first in all of their comments and actions.

Rising and Rick Schantz commit to inclusion

Schantz, who has remained the head coach of the Rising, has taken his nonchalant approach to gay slurs that night seriously, working with individuals and organizations to better equip him to lead a team that he hopes is fully LGBTQ-inclusive.

“I’m starting to understand how the LGBTQ community has been treated, from laws and government to sports environments, and it’s a whole different world,” he told Outsports Thursday, fresh off a practice under the warming Phoenix sun. “When you change from tolerance to acceptance, it’s a big step. And I want to go from acceptance to someday being a real ally. But before that, I know I have a lot of amends to make.”

Schantz praised the You Can Play project for working with the team, including the players, to build understanding around LGBTQ acceptance and problematic language.

Before the season, Schantz also directly addressed the slur from last season, and his own poor response, with the team, making sure the players new to the team understand his dedication to acceptance and his expectations of the players.

According to Schantz, the conversation was an eye-opener for a couple of players in particular who were from Africa and the Caribbean.

“A couple guys told me where they’re from countries where you can’t even say you’re gay,” Schantz said. His roster this season includes players from Jamaica, Ghana and Liberia, where sex between two men is illegal. “We have had those conversations.”

Schantz and the club have also engaged the Phoenix Gay Flag Football League, in hopes of building bridges within the community. Schantz and club representatives even went to some of the PGFFL’s games last autumn, to watch and interact and listen to the concerns of LGBTQ athletes in the community.

“He was very humble, and he admitted fault,” said league commissioner Jesus Godinez, praising Schantz and the Rising for showing a deeper commitment to the relationship and the cause of inclusion.

“They stuck around, they watched a whole game, this wasn’t him just coming out to do what they had to do. They were engaged, and they were impressed that there was that level of organization and athleticism in the adult recreational community.”

Making a statement at their season opener

The gay football league will be at the Loyal-Rising match, with two teams playing their league championship game at the new stadium shortly after the end of the match.

At halftime, the club will sign the One Community Unity Pledge, committing to an environment of respect and inclusion. Schantz said the two clubs will also come together to hold a “Proud Forever” banner at the stadium.

After over six months turned upside-down by a slur and a mistake, how will Schantz connect with Martin as the two clubs meet again at the match? The two men spoke last autumn and have, according to Schantz, texted a few times since.

“I want to embrace him as another soccer player, a competitor,” Schantz said. “And I think the best way to respect him is to treat him like any other player. He’s been an unbelievable ambassador because he’s handled this withth with such class and grace. The most mature person in all of it has been Collin Martin. I’ll shake his hand and wish him well.”

Just not well enough to win. The Rising, after all, would still like to start the season with a win.

The match on April 30 starts at 7 p.m. PT and will be broadcast on ESPN.