When Collin Martin came out as gay in 2018, he didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal. But he immediately learned otherwise – and, even two years on, soccer, in its occasional and stubborn grotesquery, recently found a way of putting his visibility and status as a representative to the test.
Martin is speaking by phone from his parents’ home outside Washington DC, a few weeks after his USL Championship team, the San Diego Loyal, had an emotional end to its season that made worldwide headlines in which a player’s sexuality, of all things, became the story of the match. Disarmingly courteous and down to earth, the 26-year-old midfielder, began explaining what led him to come out.
Though he began his professional career as a homegrown player at MLS’s DC United in 2013, it wasn’t until he arrived at Minnesota United FC in 2017 that he decided to “stop lying” to his teammates, as he says. He quickly found out they supported him, and, the following year, he decided to publicly come out during the team’s annual Pride Night after feeling the sting of an earlier missed opportunity when he was asked about his support of a different pride-themed initiative.
“I had a journalist ask me, ‘Hey, why are you supporting this?’” Martin explains. “I kind of gave her a BS answer, but I felt really stupid because I wish I could have just told her, ‘I’m a gay man playing this game, and to see my colleagues supporting something like this means the world to me.’ It was like, there’s so many people that have supported you up to this point to where you shouldn’t have to withhold it from the public – and I looked around and there was nobody like me, and so I thought maybe I could be an example for somebody if I came out.”
He wasn’t even an overnight role model and spokesman for the LBGTQ+ community – it began on the same day. Closeted teens reached out to him, inspired. He was recognized in public, deep-profiled in local Minneapolis media, and appeared on The Late Late Show With James Corden as a participant in one of Corden’s array of viral bits: as the attractive suitor in a dating skit. Even over the phone it’s obvious how seamlessly his demeanor must have dovetailed with Minnesotans’ famous politeness. He left a big mark on the Twin Cities, where he says he grew a lot as a person, and even last month he was invited to participate in a get-out-the-vote initiative alongside Minnesota state politicians.
But after playing only three games in 2019 for Minnesota, the club declined to renew his contract, and he sought a fresh start in 2020 in the USL Championship, a rung below MLS in the American soccer pyramid, with a new team out west: the San Diego Loyal, co-founded and coached by Landon Donovan.
“It was the first time I’d really gotten to play a bunch,” he says, reflecting on the recent season. “I was just really enjoying it, the team was playing well, and I just didn’t want it to end.”
But how his season ended is what we inevitably discuss. Amid a year marked by mass protests for civil rights, this young soccer team faced two brazen acts of discrimination. However, it’s what they did about it that became the sports-world analogue of what was happening on America’s streets all summer. It kept Martin and Donovan busy for weeks afterward – speaking to news media from a social distance, and to the likes of Good Morning America from the other side of their Zoom screens.
In their second-to-last game, in late September, with the playoffs on the line, a member of LA Galaxy II uttered a racial slur to Loyal defender Elijah Martin, who is black. Publicly, the Loyal forfeited the 1–1 game in protest. But Donovan and the players also made a promise to themselves: If it happened again, they’d take action during the game, not at the end.
“A lot of us didn’t know what actually happened when it did, so we felt bad that we weren’t able to do anything about it,” Martin explains. “We talked about it after the game, and we said, we need to know when this stuff happens so we can support the player and call it out. And second, that we’ll get off the field if it ever happens again.”
The very next week, it did. During the first week of October, the Loyal hosted Phoenix Rising in need of a result in order to make the playoffs. At the stroke of halft-ime, with San Diego up 2–1, Martin and his marker, Phoenix’s Junior Flemmings, were verbally going at it during a San Diego free kick, which escalated to Flemmings allegedly calling Martin a “batty boy”. It’s a malicious homophobic slur in Jamaican patois that’s offensive in any context – but especially this one.
The free kick went in and Martin went to celebrate with his teammates, then ran to the referee to relay what happened. The referee, claiming neither to have heard the slur nor understand Jamaican slang, explained that his hands were tied. To a man – and their coach – the Loyal were furious, and a telling exchange between Donovan and his Phoenix counterpart, Rick Schantz, was caught on video. Donovan explained that Flemmings called Martin gay and that they’ve got to get this out of the game, to which Schantz replied rhetorically to Donovan – the US men’s national team’s second most capped player and joint leading scorer – “They’re competing. How long have you been playing soccer?” (Schantz later said his comments were misconstrued. On the phone, Martin said that exchange “was as disappointing as the slur, to be honest.”)
At halftime, back in the locker room, Martin says everyone felt the team should forfeit the match – except for him. “I was pretty adamant. I was like, ‘No, we need to play this game – we’ll deal with it later,’” he says. “Hopefully there’ll be some retribution for the player, but I wanted to play. All my teammates were like, ‘Yeah that’s cool, but if there’s nothing done to the player then we need to make a stand and not play.’”
Hearing Donovan describe his conversation with the other team’s coach fired them up as well. They agreed that if the referee didn’t send off Flemmings or Schantz didn’t substitute him, they’d walk right back to the locker room and forfeit the game. That’s exactly what happened: The second half was never played, and San Diego’s season was over.
“Walking off the field I was pretty distraught,” Martin says. “I was just embarrassed that my sexuality had anything to do with the outcome of a game or us forfeiting it, so to me it was really a bit too much to handle. And I was just pissed that we had to deal with this!
“Personally I was fine, but I just wanted something to be done for what I knew wasn’t right,” he continues. “And I think part of me being a role model and advocate for the community is, I can’t stand up against hate at all levels of the game and sport if I‘m not going to stick up for myself on the field, right?
“Listen, what he said to me didn’t hurt me to the point where I wanted to not play, but I knew I couldn’t just stand around and have that be something that is said on the field to me.”
Forfeiting over discriminatory language is a subject that spurs all kinds of debate online, to varying degrees of coarseness. Obviously the responsibility lies with the referee and the league in these situations. But is this the way forward? Even Martin doesn’t sound sure.
“To walk off the field – yeah, it’s a pretty big statement,” he says. “Let’s just put it this way: I just wanted the referee to make the right decision … But I don’t know, the word wasn’t the reason why I wanted to end playing, so I don’t want someone to think that they can get after anyone by just saying that word, you know?”
After a brief moment of reflection, he clarifies: “What I would say is that I hope it doesn’t happen for a homophobic situation like this again, but maybe walking off the field for racism is necessary. I know how it felt personally and I wouldn’t want to have to deal with it again, but I think racism is still so prevalent in our game today and all over the world – and I think in order to make a big statement, if it happens to a team, [they should] walk off the field in support of that guy.”
Even though Martin had to go through this – all just for being who he is, mind – he says some good came out of a tough situation. Having played for numerous teams all his life, he acknowledges that there’s something special about this one and its coach, Donovan, who was adamant about where he stood. Or rather, what he wouldn’t stand for. Martin also received a lot of messages from the gay community, who were happy to see Martin’s teammates stick up for him.
“That’s what I hope people realize: You have to give your teammates a chance to receive you, and that’s why when you are comfortable with yourself, I think coming out is the right thing to do,” he says. “If there are kids that are still quitting the sport because they feel like it’s not for them, I hope that they’re more confident in themselves now, and also that they realize that other kids can’t say certain things that they maybe were saying in the past.”
Martin says the Loyal even spent the early offseason seeing after Phoenix’s Flemmings, who had his life threatened on social media, was suspended from the team and fined by the league. Martin also accepted a personal apology from Phoenix coach Schantz.
Looking ahead, Martin’s future is uncertain at the moment: He considers San Diego home now, and though he has yet to sign a new contract with the Loyal, he hopes to be back with the club. It’s not heard to see why: In a sport where racism and discrimination seem to present an endless series of rooms with no exit, there’s at least one coach and team who are willing to literally walk away from the game for each other.