As the only out athlete in a major American professional sports league, Collin Martin validates firsthand a new study reported in Outsports that found male athletes are widely accepting of their gay teammates.
Martin, a midfielder for the San Diego Loyals Major League Soccer team, made headlines this fall when his team walked off the field and forfeited a game in protest of a homophobic slur aimed at him by Phoenix Rising’s Junior Flemmings. Not only did his teammates give up a win that day by having Martin’s back, but they also lost a spot in the playoffs.
“Obviously, walking off the field was emotional for everyone that day,” Martin said during a phone conversation we had over the weekend. “I was feeling a ton of different things, slight embarrassment and anger among them, but in the locker room after the game, and after losing our chance for the playoffs, it was also a lot for my teammates to handle; however, realizing that together we took a big stand, it became a really big deal, and it was a testament that really showed not only their support for me, but how close we all became over the season.”
Since that awe-inspiring moment, Martin has received a flood of support and encouraging comments from all around the world. He appeared on Good Morning America, interviewed by former NFL star and GMA host Michael Strahan. However, perhaps the most surprising occurrence was the call Martin received from Flemmings a few weeks after the episode.
“We had a long talk, and he apologized,” Marin disclosed. “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.”
For Martin, there was no reason why he wasn’t going to accept Flemming's apology. “It was an opportunity for both of us to move forward. He realized what he did was wrong, and has used it as a chance to grow, and a learning lesson in his life."
“He was having a really good season, and lost a lot because of his mistake, so there was no way he couldn’t understand the consequences. On the phone I tried to tell him how hard it was for gay people in our country, and also in his home country of Jamaica, to be themselves and to be accepted, and for him to take that under consideration. And, hopefully he will wipe that word out of his vocabulary.”
The study reported by Outsports also showed that the casual use of gay slurs “…does not reflect an actual hatred or dislike of gay people, and that that language is reduced or disappears entirely when a gay teammate comes out due to heightened sensitivity and awareness.”
Martin added, “Fortunately, at around 18 years old, when I started playing for D.C. United, I noticed that gay slurs stopped happening for the most part in professional locker rooms and on the field. The slurs really stemmed from gay people in sports being stigmatized, and a lack of understanding and a lack of education among the players which really started to change a few years ago.”
When Martin decided to come out at the age of 24 while playing with Minnesota United, he felt that his decision would help educate his teammates.
“They realized I was still their friend, and I was just a normal dude, and there wasn’t much difference. For some of my teammates it was pretty eye opening because they never had a gay friend let alone a gay teammate. I wanted to come out, and had the courage to come out because I knew I would have the support of my teammates, the clubs I’ve played for, my agent, and fans. An athlete shouldn’t feel prohibited from sharing that information. They need to give their teammates a chance.”
Martin feels that this is the optimum time for athletes to come out. “My incident and having the coach and players back you up are proof points. Also, the tremendous support I received online from other players, club executives and others in sports validated the fact that the team will rally behind you. The response was overwhelming.”
I asked Martin if gay athletes like him are deterred from coming out over fears of jeering crowds screaming epithets? Martin wasn’t buying it. “The fans were the furthest thing from my mind. When I made the decision, it was for the people I cared about whether they were my family, friends or teammates. When I realized they were all behind me, and they were all supportive that was the biggest thing for me. I don’t think there’s much of a hurdle with the fans.”
Martin says that since he came out, and particularly since the incident, he has heard from numerous gay athletes. “I don’t think there is a better time to come out. Frankly, I don’t know what’s holding some of these athletes back from coming out. Maybe they just want to keep that side of them private. I’m not sure, but there’s not a better time to come out for sure.”
When I asked Martin what he might do once he’s retired, he laughed. “That’s a tough question. I don’t know. I think I will always continue to be part of organizations like Athlete Ally that advocate that everyone should have equal access, opportunity, and experience in sports — regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
“That said, I have no intention of retiring any time soon. I hope to be in San Diego for a good while. Playing professional sports, you have a small window in your life, so I’m going to enjoy what I have now as much as I can.”
John Casey is editor at large of The Advocate.