Collin Martin‘s San Diego Loyal teammates were pissed. His coach, American soccer legend Landon Donovan, was livid. Moments earlier, an opposing player targeted Martin, an openly gay man, with a homophobic slur, and as they gathered under a tent at halftime, they discussed how to proceed.
The team was in agreement: Something needed to be done. They decided that if the offending player, Phoenix Rising‘s Junior Flemmings, wasn’t removed from the game — by the ref, his coach or of his own volition — they would walk off the field.
San Diego led the match 3-1 and needed the win to remain in the second-tier USL Championship playoff hunt on the last day of the season. A loss would mathematically eliminate the first-year club from playoff contention.
Martin was more than a little apprehensive.
“I just was like, ‘No, we really should play this game,’ because this is my nightmare,” Martin told ESPN. “My sexuality having an impact on a soccer game? This is actually my nightmare.”
His teammates and Donovan were adamant, though, that it was the right thing to do. There were second-half plans for the teams to come together and hold up an anti-discrimination banner that read, “I will speak, I will act.” That plan was hatched after another Loyal player, Elijah Martin, was racially abused in San Diego’s previous game, leading to a request from the team to forfeit the game as a form of protest.
Had they not acted in the face of a discriminatory act to one of their own, what kind of message would that have sent?
So when Rising head coach Rick Schantz brushed it off and it became apparent Flemmings would play in the second half, the Loyal followed through and headed to the locker room. Martin was unwittingly thrust into the national spotlight.
“In the moment, [Martin hated the decision] and in probably the 24 hours after, he hated all the attention and what came from it,” Donovan said to ESPN. “But I think he was smart enough to realize the platform that had been created. That this was a unique opportunity to really — I don’t say this lightly — move our society and the world forward in a positive way. I give him a lot of credit for taking all the uncomfortable attention that he didn’t want and dealing with it so that he could help a lot of other people.”
Flemmings was later suspended for six games by the league, and he denied using an anti-gay slur toward Martin. But in a November interview with the Advocate, Martin talked about the conversations the two shared in the aftermath of that incident: “We had a long talk, and he apologized. At first during the game and shortly after, he didn’t admit he said the slur, which was upsetting to me, but during our call, he admitted that the weeks following the incident were tough for him as well, and he said he was sorry.”
Continuing on his quest to help his community, Martin has pledged support for Common Goal, an initiative intent on using soccer as a vehicle for social change. Common Goal has a network of members — including high-profile current and former soccer players, clubs and other organizations — that have agreed to contribute financially to varying degrees. With players, that means a minimum of 1% of their salaries — money that is then allocated to organizations working to support causes the players feel strongly about.
The priorities are different in various parts of the world, but Common Goal has targeted issues like racism, gender equality and COVID-19 response, among several others. Martin’s pledge will go to support Play Proud, a Common Goal initiative focused on educating soccer coaches about how to cultivate inclusive atmospheres at the youth and professional levels.
After the Loyal took their stand last fall, the next few months “were a lot,” Martin said. He’s not outspoken by nature and had a good thing going in San Diego. He had been content focusing on soccer and was playing a key role on a team that was unbeaten in its final six matches of the season before walking off the field. The abrupt end to the season in such a public way was jarring.
The aftermath of the incident sapped up a lot of mental energy, but ultimately he was able to appreciate what his team did.
“Being able to have a positive message come out of a really tough situation was the silver lining,” he said.
As the only openly gay men’s professional soccer player in the United States — and one of the few who have ever come out globally — Martin has come to embrace the significance of what he represents, especially for the LGBTQ+ community.
Initially, it wasn’t that way. Prior to coming out publicly as a member of Major League Soccer‘s Minnesota United FC in 2018, he was satisfied being accepted by those around him. His family, friends and teammates were all aware of his sexuality and were supportive. There were times growing up when that reality didn’t seem possible, so the progress was already significant.
“But it got to the point where I had a friend that told me, ‘You can make a lot bigger of an impact,'” Martin said. The friend’s message resonated: “In order to make it easier for the next generation and people that are looking up to you, you have to come out.”
When he made the announcement as part of Minnesota’s Pride Night, the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“The impact I feel like I’ve had with a lot of the youth in Minnesota and around the country, and just kids that are playing soccer — that impact for me is greater than anything I’ll ever do on the field,” Martin said. “It was something that kind of blew me away.”
After growing up feeling the need to suppress his sexuality, Martin believes strongly in the idea that creating more-accepting youth sports environments can go a long way toward helping closeted athletes become comfortable with who they are. Although he tries not to focus on the bad experiences he had related to his sexuality as a youth, he said it’s important to acknowledge how detrimental discriminatory language can be, even where there isn’t malicious intent.
San Diego Loyal midfielder Collin Martin says the support from his old teammates at Minnesota United was a big help to him when he came out as gay.
“It pushes you further in the closet and it doesn’t allow you to take a step forward that could really improve your life,” he said. “It’s also just unnecessary energy for a person to have to hear certain language or certain things and have to remind themselves there’s nothing wrong with themself.
“It was just exhausting. Around those years, having to hide, having to remind myself that like, ‘Oh, my best friend on the team, who just called another person a f—-t, he isn’t really homophobic, but he is just trying to be hurtful to that person.’ That’s tough, and it’s something that I hope the younger generation now isn’t going to have to deal with.”
Martin is not unique in that he didn’t have coaches who were willing to step in to put an end to homophobic language when it was used. That’s one of the many areas in which Play Proud is attempting to make a difference. As part of its educational process, coaches learn how to use more inclusive language and step in when players use derogatory words.
“LGBTQ youth are dropping out of sports far more than other youth,” said Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, the managing director of Common Goal USA and the founder of Play Proud. “And then the youth that are staying in the game, four out of five aren’t out to their coaches [according to research from the Human Rights Campaign Foundation].
“That’s why it’s important for people like Collin to step up and say, ‘What would have been different for me if I had that coach that made me feel like I didn’t have to be closeted?’ And if he didn’t have his coaches at Minnesota or if he didn’t have the support at SD Loyal, what would that look like for him?”
Early on as a professional, Donovan realized how important it was to have coaches who cared about players as people. He struggled with bouts of depression throughout his playing career and often found himself wishing coaches would be more compassionate and understanding. Those experiences have carried over now that he’s the one with the whistle.
“My overall philosophy with our players is that they are people first and players second,” Donovan said. “That’s a very easy phrase to say, but you have to live that every day. I always come back to: What is best for the person?”
That approach is something Martin appreciates.
“I think the best coaches I’ve ever had understood that each person on their team is a unique individual, has their own needs and has their own different complexities,” Martin said. “If we can be more understanding that maybe our players don’t just fit into one mold and come from different backgrounds and different sexualities, and whatever it may be, that’s going to make you a better coach that’s going to make your team better.”
He has spoken about these issues for years but at times grew frustrated by the lack of change.
“This is where Common Goal and Play Proud comes in. They’re actually doing the work, educating coaches at the professional level, at the youth level,” he said. “For me, it’s actually having this initiative do the things that I think we need to be doing instead of just talking about it.”