San Diego's Collin Martin holds off Orange County pursuers at Torero Stadium
San Diego’s Collin Martin — target of slur Wednesday — holds off Orange County pursuers at Torero Stadium in an earlier game. Photo by Chris Stone

San Diego Loyal coach Landon Donovan on Wednesday led his soccer team off the Torero Stadium pitch after another of his players allegedly became a target of bigotry.

But the Phoenix Rising player accused of using a Jamaican anti-gay slur denied making the utterance and said he stood in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ movement.

In its last match of the regular season, the Loyal was leading 3-1 at the half against first-place Phoenix when word emerged that San Diego player Collin Martin, 25, was called a homophobic slur.

Martin walked up the ramp at Torero Stadium with teammates rallying around him, each sharing an embrace as they made their way to the locker room.

It was the second time in two games that Donovan’s actions showed the treatment of his team was more important than earning points leading to the playoffs. Last week, a player from LA Galaxy II shouted the N-word against Loyal midfielder Elijah Martin.

That player was let go from the USL Championship team.

Donovan said the latest offense was “just devastating to me.” (A video of his comments had 1.7 million views by noon Thursday.)

In agreeing to leave the field, his players were “very clear in that moment that they were giving up all hopes of making the playoffs,” Donovan said. “But they said it doesn’t matter. There are things more important in life and we have to stand up for what we believe in.”

Donovan and his team regret not acting at the time of last week’s racial slur against Elijah Martin. They agreed with Phoenix that at the 71st minute (when Martin was insulted) both teams would hold a banner saying, “I will act. I will speak.”

“We’ve been through a lot in the last week,” Donovan said. “I understand that most people watching from afar probably don’t get it, but we have been living it. We made a vow … that we would not stand for bigotry, homophobic slurs, things that don’t belong in our game. So much so that on our sign boards we made a statement saying, ‘I will act. I will speak.’”

But San Diego players took a knee at the beginning of the second half and walked off the pitch.

Later, USL Championship issued a statement: “We are aware of the alleged use of a homophobic slur in tonight’s match between San Diego Loyal SC and Phoenix Rising FC. Foul and abusive language of any type has absolutely no place in our society and will not be tolerated in USL matches.”

The statement said an investigation was underway to determine the facts surrounding the incident and more information would be provided as soon as it is available.

The president of the Loyal’s fan club, The Locals, called on Phoenix to fire coach Schontz and to cut Junior Flemmings, 24, a Jamaican midfielder they accuse of making the slur. Flemmings was USL Championship Player of the Month in August.

“This does not belong anywhere near the beautiful game,” said Locals leader Steve Brockhoff.

But in his own tweet, Flemmings denied making the slur.

“This accusation is false and my fellow teammates will support my claim,” Flemmings said. “In the 45th minute, the referee issued a red card to Collin Martin. The San Diego defense then attempted to … convince [the referee] he made a mistake. San Diego claimed that I made a homophobic slur towards Collin Martin with no evidence to support the claim.”

Flemmings said the referee was mobbed by San Diego players and their coach. He said the referee admitted he did not hear any homophobic slurs and was “utterly confused by the situation.”

Flemmings said he didn’t know Martin personally, “but I respect all of my opponents equally….
I am disappointed by San Diego’s actions this evening as I have been mauled and ridiculed online with no opportunity to defend myself.”

He concluded: “I stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ movement.”

But Jeff Rueter of The Athletic said audio confirmed the slur used by Flemmings was a Jamaican slang term for a gay or effeminate man.

The Loyal was in the lead after a goal by Miguel Berry and two by Rubio Rubin.

Donovan responded to Phoenix head coach Rick Schantz, who were discussing the incident with referees.

On video, Schantz was heard telling Donovan:* “Come on, man. Don’t make a big scene.”

Donovan replied: “We have to get this out of our game.”

Schantz: “It’s got nothing to do with racism.

Donovan: “It’s not racism. They’re calling him gay.”

Schantz: “They’re competing.”

Donovan: “It’s homophobia.”

Schantz: “How long have you been playing soccer?”

Donovan: “You’re better than that.”

Said the Loyal’s Twitter account: “We are loyal to our message, we are loyal to our players, we are loyal to our fans, and most importantly we are loyal to San Diego.”

A Phoenix team supporter tweeted: “I apologize for anything that was said. I was shocked, disappointed and sad. I know #myteam@PHXRisingFC is better than this.”

Another Phoenix fan wrote: “As a @PHXRisingFC fan, I’m so sorry for the actions of my club. There is no place anywhere for these kinds of actions. Please know the fans will be holding the offenders accountable. I’m sorry.

However, a couple of Loyal fans were opposed to the walkout, saying the team may be prey to opposing players using slurs to provoke forfeits next season.

At the start of the game, the Loyal was in third place with 23 points. They had been vying with LA Galaxy II and the Orange County club for second place in Group B to continue into the playoffs in their inaugural year.

However, LA Galaxy II is in second place with 26 points. With no points Wednesday, the Loyal is no longer in contention. Phoenix, LA and Orange County each have one more game to play Oct. 3.

The Loyals have not had a loss since Aug. 22 against Reno FC.

Newly acquired players Miguel Berry, Alejandro Guido and Rubin added significantly to the team’s scoring in the last month.

After forfeiting the game to LA, club Chairman Andrew Vassiliadis said, ““We don’t even want to recognize being a part of a match where these types of actions take place.The Loyal in our name is symbolic of the diversity in our community and as a club we will not stand for this.”

In a 270-word statement posted Thursday afternon, Martin said it was the first time he’s heard the slur during a game in his eight-year career.

“During the next stoppage in play, I tried telling the ref that a gay slur had been directed towards me,” Martin said. “However, he got confused and thought I called him gay – hence why I was mistakenly given a red card thereafter.”

Martin said Flemmings eventually told him he hadn’t used the slur.

“At this point, it is clear to me that he was backtracking and attempting to deny what he said,” Martin said in the statement posted on Twitter.

Martin hailed the Loyal.

“Their collective decision to walk off the field in solidarity and forfeit the match speaks volumes of their support for me and what this organization is standing up to,” he said. “Ultimately. I hope this can be another example that we have a long way to go in educating ourselves and kicking hate out of our game.”

*An earlier version of this story misquoted some of Donovan’s remarks.

Updated at 5:15 p.m. Oct. 1, 2020