As unfortunate as it is, homophobia and discrimination towards the LGBTQ+ community is still running rampant in sports.
Just ask Collin Martin, a midfielder for the San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship.
During a game against the Phoenix Rising on Sept. 30, 2020, Martin, who had possession of the ball, heard a homophobic slur directed to him from a Rising player.
At the time, Martin was the only openly gay male soccer player in the U.S. leagues. Such an incident was a complete first for him.
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“I've never had a slur used against me on a field like that before,” Martin said. “And so I felt personally attacked and I felt that the player was trying to really, really, really hurt me and also provoke me to do something really bad.”
That prompted Loyal head coach Landon Donovan, Rising head coach Rick Shantz and the referees to get involved.
In a video during the moment recorded by the Loyal, you can hear Donovan say the slur allegedly said to Martin is “beyond soccer”, but Shantz responds with, “C’mon man, don’t make a big scene…It has nothing to do with racism.”
Donovan responded: “It’s not racism. They’re calling him gay. It’s homophobia.”
“It was surprising how overtly homophobic it was and how casual he was and just saying how he felt and that in sport, homophobia happens, it exists, and we should just we should just be used to it,” Martin said.
The situation continued from there, but that got one U.S. player not involved in the game wanting to take action: DeAndre Yedlin.
Yedlin, a 29-year-old right-back for the U.S. men’s national team, wants soccer players to become better allies for the LGBTQ+ community, starting with himself.
Walking off the pitch
After halftime of the Loyal-Rising contest, the Loyal players got back onto the field and responded to the alleged slur – they all took a knee, then walked off the pitch one-by-one.
The moment had more gravity riding behind it, as just a week before, a Loyal player was the target of an alleged slur from a Los Angeles Galaxy player.
“It took a lot of courage from my teammates to be willing to stand up for me in the moment,” Martin said.
After the game, Junior Flemmings, the Rising player accused of saying the alleged slur, released a statement denying a homophobic slur was directed to Martin. Flemmings was reached out to for comment, but there was no response.
“You could say, ‘Well, it happens all the time. It's not that big of a deal’,” Donovan said. “But we should probably still try to eradicate that because we don't need it in the game. We understand it's going to take time. We can't expect everyone to be perfect 100% of the time.”
In response to walking off the pitch, the Rising had to forfeit the game and surrendered their playoff spot that year. A few weeks later, the USL suspended Flemmings for the rest of the season over the alleged incident.
Loyal’s actions after the situation caught Yedlin’s eye while he was playing for Newcastle United in England at the time.
“I thought that was amazing that a team would do that and kind of take that issue,” Yedlin said. “And because it is a much bigger issue than the game and leave the field for that, you know, I don't think in this day and age you would see that a lot.”
Coincidentally, around that time, Yedlin was in search of investing in something of high-impact in the soccer world, so what happened with Loyal and Martin spurred him to action.
He reached out to Donovan and the team, and Donovan recalled Yedlin’s genuine interest in wanting to help out with more than just with monetary value or profit – he wanted to know and understand more about the franchise’s values and beliefs.
Then on May 30, 2021, Yedlin bought an ownership stake in the Loyal.
Sportsmanship means allyship
Growing up for Martin, he hoped that soccer would feel like a more inclusive sport for when players were discriminated against.
“I just wish I had coaches in my youth level that would have called out very homophobic, either statements or words or sentiments or or they would have just been more cognizant of the language that they used,” Martin said. “But also, my teammates used and just made it clear what is acceptable and what isn't and just been a little bit more mindful that maybe the heterosexual experience isn't the being had for every single one of their players.”
So Yedlin has been looking to combine his allyship with sportsmanship. Not only did he put his money where his mouth is but he also committed himself to changing the culture and making sure players like Martin can feel comfortable in his own skin.
For Martin, having someone like Yedlin who can utilize his voice for good and be a support system for those who feel marginalized is powerful and shows the quality of Yedlin’s character.
Figuring out his allyship
Yedlin still doesn’t have his allyship all figured out, however. He constantly checks his own behavior and wants to set the standard for the future of the sport.
It helped him that his grandpa, Ira Yedlin, has served as a reliable compass for him to navigate a complex world.
“A lot of what I believe a lot in, you know, the foundational morals and values I have come from him,” Yedlin said.
Growing up, Yedlin became accustomed to keeping an open mind about topics and asking more questions to formulate his own thoughts and beliefs, which makes him more comfortable to speak out when he doesn’t agree with something.
With his status as a well-known soccer player globally, Yedlin takes his platform seriously and knows what he says can be easily circulated, so he maintains the spirit of continuously asking questions and remaining open-minded to improve as a human.
“It’s not just to look good in the media, you know what I mean? You know, getting kudos from everybody else is to actually make a real change,” Yedlin said. “And we have the power to do that, especially with social media and things like that, where our platforms are bigger and we have the power to reach tons and tons and tons of people between all of us.”