It's been a week.
A weekend of soccer was nearly over when Robbie Rogers dropped a social media bombshell: that a player for the Orange County Blues FC repeatedly called him a "queer" as he returned from injury with the LA Galaxy II Saturday night.
He described his anger turning to calm and his post-game gratitude for playing in an environment where such an incident has never happened over the last three years. My feelings mirrored his as I mulled over his post. Any use of speech grounded in hate angers me, but reading Rogers' post full of poise and grace calmed me. And like Robbie I was grateful to be part of a soccer community that has often stood with the LGBT community, including responding appropriately to homophobic language whether it be fans' goal kick chants or players' schoolyard taunts on the pitch.
I think we expected appropriate responses from the United Soccer League, the OC Blues FC, and the now-identified player Richard Chaplow. Colin Clark, Marc Burch, and Alan Gordon all showed contrition for their on-field behavior in both word and deed. Major League Soccer and their respective teams addressed each of their situations head-on with education and other consequences. Colin Clark, Marc Burch, and Alan Gordon all accepted three-game suspensions as part of their punishments for their actions.
Wednesday evening we were all surprised when USL announced a two-game suspension and fine for Chaplow. Their announcement suspiciously omitted any mention of homophobia or any actions beyond the suspension and fine when one would expect some sort of educational follow-up. And naturally, the comparison to MLS punishments was made. Two is most definitely less than three, and this was an incident of a homophobic slur used against an openly gay player.
Then Richard Chaplow spoke out. It wasn't an apology; it was a denial in the form of an interview with The Telegraph. His claim--which was reiterated in a statement from the team later in the evening--was that his punishment was only for using foul language during the course of the game. The OC Blues FC statement stated that the investigations and interviews found no substantive evidence to support Robbie Rogers claim.
By this logic Robbie Rogers misunderstood a word repeatedly used against him, lied about the incident, or some combination of the two.
It's hard to believe this was a misunderstanding if multiple teammates (and one opposing player) apologized to Rogers after the game. A misunderstanding is hard to believe when multiple fans called out Chaplow on social media after the game before he was identified by the team and the league.
Why would Robbie Rogers lie? What would he gain from fabricating any part of this story? Rogers is a man who while advocating for his community during his off-time has always strived to not be "the gay player" while on the pitch. He wouldn't want to single himself out as "the gay player" unless he had a legitimate concern that needed to be raised.
How rigorously did USL investigate this incident? Did they rely on the experience of their partners in MLS as they worked through the situation? Did they reach out to any outside groups on the matter? We will likely never find out anything beyond their brief statement, but Major League Soccer partners the You Can Play Project could have been a great resource:
You Can Play has had a lot of success working with Major League Soccer in the last few years, and we look forward to seeing soccer continue to be an even safer sport for all athletes and fans, including those who are LGBT. We are saddened to hear about this incident, but happy to see the USL and MLS investigating the matter and re-affirming their zero-tolerance policy. We've reached out to our partners at MLS to offer any additional support they might need.
The length of suspension is frustrating, but even more frustrating is the opportunity lost by a player seeming to dig in his heels and refuse to admit the details many agree occurred and move forward from what happened. This could have been a chance at bringing LGBT-inclusive education programs to locker rooms beyond Major League Soccer. It could have built new bridges between USL and the LGBT community but a ball really seems to have been dropped here, and that may be the greatest tragedy coming through this week.
In his post, Robbie Rogers encourages fellow athletes to come out while acknowledging everyone has a different path to the destination he has found. The next out male soccer player could be in MLS, but he's statistically more likely to come from one of North America's other soccer leagues. Now, those athletes have a different view of lower leagues and how they might handle LGBT issues, and at the end of this week that may be the biggest shame of all.