Tackling Hate Speech in Football

Common Goal works with USL clubs to create safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ athletes

Last week, Common Goal embarked on a project alongside USL Championship clubs San Diego Loyal and Phoenix Rising to help promote values of inclusivity in both professional football and at grass roots level.

Ahead of last Friday’s season opener which ended 4-1 to the home side Phoenix, prior to the game both clubs approached Common Goal in an attempt to move past one of the league’s most widely discussed moments of last season — for all the wrong reasons.

When they last met, the now-former Phoenix attacker Junior Flemmings directed a homophobic slur at opposing Loyal midfielder Collin Martin — the only openly gay active professional in men’s team sports.

The subsequent walk-off, led by manager and US football legend Landon Donovan, received massive international coverage.

“As the league took stock of what had happened, one thing about the league’s approach to policing hate speech on the field became clear: business as usual just wasn’t working,” wrote Jeff Rueter in his piece for The Athletic.

“Flemmings was suspended for six games, with two left to be served this season, and fined an undisclosed amount. Outside of that, little else was done in the immediate aftermath.

“The culture of punishing infractors and attempting to move on extends beyond the USL.

“It’s become a cycle which is equal parts predictable and underwhelming: the infractor is found to have said a slur, they make a public apology (often including a line about “what I said does not reflect my character”), serve a suspension, sit through a sensitivity training session and return to the field with little more said or done about the matter.

“In effect, using hate speech is treated the same as if the player had gone studs-up on an opponent.”

With the two teams playing against one another four times over the next three months, before the game Lilli Barret-O’Keefe, Common Goal’s North American Lead, conducted the first of a number of restorative justice circles last week in San Diego and Phoenix.

Using her experience from Common Goal’s Play Proud project — an initiative which works to create safe and inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ athletes in the grassroots and professional game — the idea is to evolve from this cycle of punishment  and to start cultivating values of inclusivity and diversity.

“The sessions went incredibly well,” said Barret-O’Keefe.

“And we have already been approached by other teams to carry out similar sessions.

“We will conduct additional combined sessions with the teams and individual sessions in-between for each team ‘at home’ in their respective cities throughout the upcoming months.”

The workshop focused on the individuals involved, the players and staff, and asked them to look at their own backgrounds; posing the question of how one’s background could influence the act of saying a homophobic slur to the other.

“Rather than trying to teach a locker room of soccer players about the challenges and experiences unique to the LGBTQ+ community, the session went in an unexpected direction: Barrett-O’Keefe built the session around each person’s shared humanity,” wrote Rueter.

“She rooted the session in restorative justice, a process which repairs the harm caused by an infraction and often involves a community of people beyond the victim and the aggressor.

“For three hours, each team was seated at their home training facilities in a circle, equidistant from the centre. Discussions about lines of engagement and marking systems were replaced with learning more about who their teammates are as people.” 

It was a moment in which Barret-O’Keefe feels can help the game evolve beyond empty statements towards action.

“Just as we saw the recently in the La Liga game [where Cadiz defender Juan Cala was alleged to have racially abused Valencia’s Mouctar Diakhaby], we are challenging teams and leagues to be able to see beyond suspensions, red cards, and penalties,” she said.

“This feels like quite a unique and ideal moment to pave the way for a new model to act on these topics. 

“[Which is] exactly what Common Goal is after — to challenge the norm and propose new ways to change the soccer landscape.”

Read the Rueter’s full in-depth article over at The Athletic here.