It’s Saturday afternoon, and while there’s no Sporting Kansas City game there’s evening, there’s still plenty going on in the soccer world, and MLS, to be more specific. A personal friend of mine, Benjamin Winters (follow him on Twitter @KUBensa) had some things he wanted in a public forum regarding something controversial that happened Friday evening, so I quickly offered this avenue for public distribution. Making his first guest post on TalkinTouches.com, Benjamin Winters… -Andy
In case you missed it in Friday night’s Houston Dynamo vs. Seattle Sounders MLS game (broadcast on NBC Sports Channel), on-field microphones picked up Dynamo midfielder Colin Clark yelling at a ball boy with aR profanity and homophobic slur. Clark, an American-born player, later apologized, posting the following in a series of tweets early Saturday morning:
“I’d like to offer a sincere apology to everyone who watched the game, especially the ball boy for whom I used awful language towards, I didn’t mean to disrespect anyone and am sorry for letting my emotions get the best of me, It’s not who I am and it won’t happen again.”
Clark later tweeted:
“@gay4soccer I’m very sorry for my actions tonight and I would love for you to consider me a #soccerally moving forward,”
I hesitate to make a mountain out of a molehill here, but this may well be what some in politics refer to as a “teachable moment.” Further, this unfortunate incident represents a potential problem for MLS as it moves forward into a more mainstream sport. It is my belief that MLS must first issue an unequivocal statement denouncing Clark’s words, and ought to hand out at least some kind of punishment to make it known far and wide that such ugly speech has no place in the beautiful game. Lastly, the incident illustrates the potential gap between MLS players and a significant portion of its fan base, a problem that could hamper the league’s efforts to further expand its footprint across the country.
The incident is somewhat illustrative of a perpetual problem that many major sports leagues face in today’s economy. As we’ve seen in European soccer and elsewhere, racism between both fans and players has been problematic for years. The recent suspension to Luis Suarez and John Terry being stripped of the England captaincy have shown that, regardless of the intent of the speaker, FIFA and soccer leagues in general are increasingly interested in setting an example where discriminatory speech is concerned. MLS should do the same. A substantial penalty, such as a 3-5 match ban and a monetary fine would likely be appropriate. Colin Clark doesn’t get paid the kind of money Luis Suarez or John Terry make, so a monetary fine, in addition to a match ban, would send a strong signal that such hateful speech is simply unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
MLS should couple the penalty it hands out to Clark with a strongly-worded statement to all of its players and teams that the league expects its teams to promote positive speech from the top down. Though I’ve never been in an MLS locker room, I suspect this kind of speech is not limited to the playing field, and I cannot imagine this is the first time Clark has ever uttered that word or phrase in a derogatory manner. Even in the heat of the moment, people simply don’t say things they haven’t said ever before, and there is little doubt in my mind that the only reason Clark tweeted his apology is because he got caught. Had his words not shown up on a national broadcast, we would never have heard about it. Frankly, that’s sad. What’s sad is that it took an outburst caught on camera to start the conversation, and not a teammate approaching Clark and telling him that it’s just not okay to say what he said. Leadership means taking a stand, even if it’s not popular in the locker room.
And that leads me to my last point. The likely fact that this hasn’t been addressed in the locker room indicates to me that MLS may have a potential problem on its hands regarding the gap in philosophy between its players and its growing fan base. MLS has grown in popularity most among the 18-49 suburban demographic. Frankly, this new expanding fan base tends to be more progressive than the general population, and as we’ve seen in political polling, young Americans tend to be more tolerant where race and sexual orientation are concerned. The same may not be true of professional sport locker rooms across this country. The fact that, in this country, we still have not had an active member of a professional sports team come out of the closet is indicative of the problem. It’s unfortunate, but likely true that were such an athlete to come out of the closet, he would be met with a less-than-friendly reaction from his teammates. Again, that’s sad.
Because of this widening gap between MLS’s athletes and its growing fan base, it would be in the league’s best interest to get out ahead of this problem before it continues to grow. MLS should send a strong signal to its players and the rest of the world that it will take a stand against discriminatory speech. The fans, and the country, deserve better. You’re on the clock, Commissioner Garber.