Those are the words of Landon Donovan, manager of the San Diego Loyal soccer team. Donovan led the Loyal to perhaps the most extraordinary moment in all of sports in 2020.
This story begins on the field, but the upheavals of the past year have deepened and heightened the presence of sports in our society. It has been a year of sharply increased, intense and at times tense engagement between sports and politics, from LeBron James’s spearheading of More Than A Vote to Naomi Osaka’s late-August actions, on the court and off, in the name of racial justice, to a WNBA team conflicting with its owner over the urgent cause of Black Lives Matter. Players and teams have sat out games as a form of protest, often demanding change outside the realm of the sport they play. Meanwhile, official sports marketing has aimed some of its messaging campaigns toward issues of civil rights, equality, and justice.
But no message, and no protest, has been quite as radical or shocking this year as the one that issued from the San Diego Loyal at the end of September.
The Loyal recently completed their inaugural season in the United Soccer League (officially known as the USL Championship), a Division II league just below top-tier Major League Soccer. San Diego’s 2020 regular-season record left the team just short of a playoff berth, after they lost their final match of the season—officially speaking, that is. In fact, the Loyal took a commanding lead into halftime of the match, but then refused to play the second half. Their deliberate forfeit cost them the postseason and a chance at the USL Championship title. All in the name of higher values.
The Loyal’s President and Co-Founder, Warren Smith, was on the sidelines, “enjoying watching our team clobber the other team,” he told Adapt, in the fateful final game of the season. The opponent was the first-place Phoenix Rising, who had already clinched a playoff spot. “They were in first place,” Smith said. “The game doesn’t mean much to them, it means a lot to us.”
Just before halftime, the Loyal scored a goal to increase their lead to 3-1. Almost immediately afterward, a confusing commotion broke out on the pitch. Even from his close sideline vantage point, and surrounded by quiet, empty stands due to pandemic safety protocols, it was difficult for Smith to tell what was happening.
“As we scored that third goal,” Smith observed, “you could see that our openly gay player, Collin Martin, was questioning the referee on something, and he received a red card. He immediately runs to the sideline and talks to the side referee to see if he could get some assistance, because what he was trying to say was that, ‘Hey, this guy’s calling me a [homophobic slur]’. And [the opposing player] was doing it in a Jamaican term which is also very common in soccer, and players from around the world know what it means.”
Players know, but the head referee did not. Once he understood that Martin was not directing the term at anyone, but rather protesting that he had been its target, the referee rescinded Martin’s red card. But because he didn’t recognize the slur itself, he wouldn’t eject the offending Phoenix player (who is Jamaican)–”which is appropriate, actually,” Smith allowed. And Phoenix’s manager refused the Loyal’s request to make a substitution and bench the player for the rest of the game.
In response, San Diego’s players and coaches walked off their home field. It was their final play of the season.
Protest was a fairly regular feature of the sports landscape in 2020. But it would be difficult, if not impossible, to think of another example of a team–in the past year or any other, ever–crossing the sacrosanct line of winning in the name of principle. The prime directive in pro sports is to win games, followed by winning profits (or sometimes the other way around). Almost everything else takes a backseat, if it has a seat at all.
But when this notion was presented to Loyal President Smith, he was quick with this response:
“I think that’s changing pretty dramatically,” he said. And his team is leading the change.
Such was the drama of the Loyal’s forfeiture and its consequences that it brought them, a second-tier soccer team–the equivalent of a minor-league baseball club, and a brand-new one at that–national attention. The story was picked up by ESPN and other prominent media outlets. Collin Martin appeared jointly with his coach on Good Morning America.
During that appearance, Donovan made sure to begin his comments by saying that “context matters quite a bit.” The Loyal’s season-ending walkout, shocking as it may have been, was actually the final scene of a longer, more complex story, which Donovan summarized. In the 71st minute of their previous game—the specific moment on the clock will take on significance—one of their Black players, Elijah Martin, a defender, was called the N-word by an opposing player, who should have been ejected from the game, by league regulations.
“There was a referee who [later] admitted hearing it but didn’t take the action necessary,” Smith said. “And [the opponents’] head coach admitted hearing it.” Yet nothing was done. Action on the field continued, including “a pretty aggressive challenge,” as Smith described it, late in the game by Elijah Martin, the player who had taken the racial abuse. The foul on Martin earned him a yellow card. It was his second of the match, resulting in an automatic red card and ejection from the game.
With a key defender sent off and the Loyal playing one man down through the game’s final minutes, the opposing team scored to tie the score, 1-1. That was the final result. Instead of three points in the standings for a win, the Loyal earned one point, as did their opponent.
It’s natural to wonder if the racial abuse Elijah Martin suffered led to his over-aggressive challenge; and natural to wonder whether, had he still been on the field and the Loyal at full, eleven-man strength, they would not have allowed the tying goal.
Much more significantly, it’s natural to wonder why this act of racism went virtually unreported, initially, outside the regional bubble of the Southern California sports media, especially given the glaring national spotlight on Black Lives Matter and racist violence throughout the summer. The incident didn’t receive much national notice until after the homophobic events of the Loyal’s next game, and then only as background to the later incident.
Granted, the first occurrence ended with the Loyal merely relinquishing a standings point, not walking off the pitch. But had Donovan known during play what had taken place with Elijah Martin, it would have.
“Landon shared with us, ‘Had I known that this had happened and that the referees and opposing coach didn’t take action—had I known it was that egregious—I would’ve pulled the team off,’” Smith told Adapt. Horrifying as the use of the N-word was, Donovan was nearly as dismayed that the confusing circumstances surrounding it, and the teams playing on, prevented the Loyal from taking direct action in the moment.
They did take indirect action afterward. First, Smith said, “we called the league right away and filed a report. As the league was going through the process, we said, ‘What can we do? We have an option here: We don’t have to take the point [for the tie].
“That would put the league in an uncomfortable position,’” Smith continued–but in all walks of life, even branding, as Adapt has shown, messages often get through most effectively by making people uncomfortable.
“We all agreed,” Smith told Adapt, “‘Let’s not recognize that match ever happening. We don’t want that to be happening in games.’” The Loyal rejected the standings point.
“It was a way for us to take some action,” said Smith, who then echoed Landon Donovan’s comments about the difference between armbands and action: “There’s so much in sports—hashtagging and kneeling and a lot of talking—but not a lot of doing, from my perspective.”
More action: in the week between the anti-Black incident involving Elijah Martin and the season finale versus Phoenix, the Loyal sharpened their purpose and their principles. They came up with a pointed new message that directly addressed what had happened. Its language was that of the Loyal speaking both for themselves and to their fans.
“We said, purely from a marketing perspective, ‘How do we show that we’re actually taking our own action, not just talking? Let’s rally behind our values,’” Smith said. “Everything is so visceral nowadays that a lot of people stay quiet. And as we talked through this we recognized that that’s part of the problem. So we came up with a tagline that we were going to live by as an organization for the rest of the season, and it was plastered around the stadium.” It also appeared on the stadium’s video scoreboard.
“And it said: I WILL SPEAK. I WILL ACT.”
That, of course, is talk, but the Loyal had plans to walk the walk, as well. Determined to put this newly articulated value into play, the team arranged with Phoenix to stop play in the 71st minute: the same juncture as the slur uttered against Martin. Collectively, they would hold up a banner bearing those words: I WILL SPEAK. I WILL ACT.
But the 71st minute never came, of course, after the homophobic slur against Collin Martin just before halftime—two acts of hate speech in two consecutive games—and the protest the Loyal had planned in collaboration with their opponent was preempted by one far more radical.
They did not make the decision to stop playing right on the spot. In fact, during halftime, as Smith recounted to Adapt, “Landon had a conversation with the team and asked them what they wanted to do. And their consensus was, ‘We want to play.’” Leading that opinion was Collin Martin himself, the slandered gay player, largely because it bothered him that his presence had put the Loyal in their predicament. But one of the Loyal’s four core values is Camaraderie, both among their roster and in the San Diego community. Singling out a player simply for being who he was went against that value.
Donovan was “adamant,” Collin Martin later recalled, that the Loyal mustn’t continue the game if the player who used the homophobic slur against him was permitted to keep playing. The team concurred with their coach: “This is where we make our stand,” they said. When neither the referee nor Phoenix’s coach agreed to remove the player who had used the slur from the game, that left only one choice.
It was not an entirely comfortable one.
“We put ourselves in a little bit of a box when we said I WILL SPEAK. I WILL ACT,” Smith said. “And we had to get out of that box.
“I’m not sure that walking off the field is the right way,” he added. But, he said, “I want people to be able to make decisions on their own, and equip them with the tools to do so, and the first tool is: You’re protected. Don’t worry about making a mistake. Make a decision, because the speed with which we need to act in this sport is quick. You didn’t make a wrong decision if you can articulate to me how a decision was based on our values.
“My job is to support that,” Smith continued. “We [in the front office] don’t interact with the players every day. For the players to want to take action on core values that we put in place shows what a great job Landon’s doing in articulating those [values], and articulating the kind of organization he wants to run.”
Rather than feeling trapped in a box, the Loyal treated the collision of their values with a second offense against them as a rare and golden second opportunity. The decision not to go on playing, once taken, made this literally not a story about sports—the game and the season ended, full stop—but about values.
And the Loyal’s values had been in place all season.
“It was the first thing we did in the new year [January 2020]. We sat together and worked through [our values]”—going so far as to work with a consulting agency to promulgate them—and we’re very proud of them.”
Donovan familiarized the team’s players (“good humans first, good players second,” as Smith described them) with those values before the season began: Competition, Commitment, Connection, and Camaraderie. And of the fifteen sentences of language that elaborate those values, only three even mention soccer. Not only is sport not the end-all, be-all, it does not even speak the most loudly.
The overwhelming majority of the Loyal’s supporters fully endorsed the team’s decision to forfeit the match. (The few dissenters objected not to the content of the protest but mainly on the grounds that they regretted not being able to see the Loyal in the playoffs, for which the forfeited standings points kept the team from qualifying.) That’s a sure sign that the franchise had strongly communicated its values to its fan base.
And the Loyal communicated in ways they hadn’t intended, as well. The opposing players who used the slurs suffered significant public backlash that reached the level of death threats—some of it, ironically, also racist. The player who used the racist slur was cut by his team just days after the game against the Loyal. And after the season ended, Phoenix did not offer the player who had used the homophobic slur a contract for 2021, even though he was the USL’s leading goal scorer.
“These are young men who are learning,” Smith told Adapt. He characterized the offending players’ hate speech as naivete, not bigotry, and expressed regret that the injustice the Loyal’s players had suffered was visited forward on others.
“We’ve learned through the process too, about what we did,” Smith added. “Our actions can cause a reaction” more extreme than intended or imagined.
Consequently, the Loyal are behind off-season efforts to implement sensitivity training throughout the USL in 2021, and to amend the rules so that if a player uses hate speech, his team will lose points in the standings. That not only puts the previously untouchable currency of winning and losing back on the top of the board—in step with the Loyal’s decision to walk off the field in their final match—it does so in the service one of the Loyal’s values: camaraderie—protecting the player, not punishing him.
“We view ourselves as a community leader even though we’ve only been here a very short amount of time,” Smith said. “We’re here for the long haul. With that comes some responsibilities, and those responsibilities are to be the type of organization that ultimately the [community] would want to be with, and to set an example. If you truly do represent the community you have to speak for the community and what’s on their mind, and I think we did.”