Major League Soccer’s Zero Tolerance On Homophobic Language

Will Johnson is in his Canadian national team shirt. He is pumping his right fist and grimacing on his face.

Will Johnson

[Content Note: Homophobic language]

Until the NHL’s announcement last week that it would be partnering with You Can Play, Major League Soccer was the only professional men’s sports league in the US to actively and loudly fight back against homophobia in their sport.

I wrote about this at Rant Sports late last summer:

Major League Soccer, more than any other men’s professional sports league in the US, has been a vocal proponent of LGBT equality. In May [2012], when it announced that it would participate in the “You Can Play” project, which works to end homophobia in sports culture, MLS executive vice president JoAnn Neale said, “MLS W.O.R.K.S. [the league’s charitable arm] is committed to working alongside groups that support LGBT causes and equality.”

Individual teams have also shown their support for the LGBT community. According to Yahoo, “Many teams, including the Chicago Fire, Chivas USA, D.C. United and the Columbus Crew have held game promotions for gay and lesbian groups.” And just earlier this month, Chicago Fire announced that it would team up with Equality Illinois, the pairing being “the Midwest‘s first formal alliance between a professional sports team and a pro marriage equality organization.”

This past Saturday, during a game between the San Jose Earthquakes and the Portland Timbers, Alan Gordon, a striker for San Jose, called Will Johnson, a midfielder and captain for Portland, a “fucking faggot.” Cameras caught Gordon saying the word and Gordon released a statement through his team almost immediately after the game :

I would like to sincerely apologize to everyone who watched tonight’s match on NBC Sports Network. The language I used came during a heated moment and does not reflect my feelings toward the gay and lesbian community. I made a mistake and I accept full responsibility for my actions.

The president of the San Jose Earthquakes, Dave Kaval, also released a statement. A rather remarkable statement, I’d say:

Alan’s comments do not reflect the views or beliefs of our organization. We have always promoted an atmosphere of acceptance and equality in our stadium and amongst our diverse and passionate fans.

I am appalled by the use of the hurtful language on the pitch last night. We will use the collective energy and resources of our club to foster an inclusive environment for all of our fans. I hope to use this deplorable incident as a tool to help eradicate offensive language of this kind.

For our fans, I know the organization has let you down.  I will do my best to take the necessary actions to make sure we once again can be viewed as a beacon of diversity, community, and equality.

The MLS has yet to gain popularity on a national level and much of its support seems localized around the teams. Yet this should not diminish the example that it is showing to all professional sports league on how to handle homophobic language. The MLS, as an organization, has taken an active role in fighting back not just against major homophobic acts (discrimination, public statements in the media, etc.) but against casual language on the pitch. The MLS understands that words hurt and that they have a responsibility beyond what is happening on the pitch – they have a responsibility to their fans and people watching on TV.

Kaval said he wants his team to “once again be viewed as a beacon of diversity, community, and equality.” That is a beautiful goal for a professional men’s sports franchise to have.

The league responded quickly to the incident, showing how important they believe it is to deal with such incidents. The MLS announced on Tuesday that Gordon has been suspended from the next three games. This is a consistent punishment: both Marc Burch and Colin Clark had the exact same suspension last year for using the same word on the pitch, Burch also directing the word at Will Johnson. According to SB Nation, “MLS also fined Gordon and will require that he attend diversity and sensitivity training. That will be in addition to the training that the league requires all clubs to attend prior to each season.”

Gordon will also miss a fourth game because he “was sent off in the 68th minute after getting a second yellow card, for elbowing Timbers defender Mikael Silvestre in the face, causing a bloody lip. Gordon also received a yellow in the 41st minute for a foul on Diego Chara.” A red card from two yellow cards is an automatic one-game suspension.

Johnson had, perhaps, the very best answer an athlete can have when another player maligns them with words: he answered by being a damn good football player.

In the 78th minute of the game, 10 minutes after Gordon had been ejected, Portland had a free kick at San Jose’s end. The game was tied 0-0 and Johnson stepped up and hit what Deadspin called a “blistering” and “fantastic” goal (the game-winning goal it turned out). It has to be seen to be believed:

Because that is what this really about, right? Who can play the game. Everyone should feel safe to play the sport they love and the MLS is leading that charge.

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2 thoughts on “Major League Soccer’s Zero Tolerance On Homophobic Language

  1. As a soccer fan, and especially as a queer one, I am definitely glad that this league is very quick and decisive with punishments against this kind of crap. Like I said on Twitter, I kind of wish it was more than a three match ban, but I also understand that they can’t exactly bench a guy for the rest of the season or something. When people like Gordon do this, they may think they’re just tossing out a random insult, but really they’re just adding another lock on the closet door that any active gay or bi players may be in. Look at Robbie Rogers – he came out only when he also was stepping away from the game. I’m not sure which came first – did he step away *because* he was coming out, or was he planning to take a break anyway and decided to use that time to come out too? But in any case, no player is going to feel comfortable to come out openly while playing if opponents (or hell, their own teammates) are using such derogatory and hateful language so casually.

    Have you seen their “Don’t Cross The Line” campaign? This was the initial ad for it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHmTvpmLFKA and I remember when I first saw it, I was so happy they included homophobia, because usually the focus in soccer (more so in Europe than here) is on racism. Obviously, racist bullshit is horrible too and has no place in the game, but homophobia can be just as nasty too.

  2. Jessica, thanks for this. I’m a relatively new MLS fan (been following the league since 2010), and I’ve been consistently impressed by their stand on discrimination, especially in light of how far other sports leagues have to go.

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