North American Soccer Clubs, Supporters Unite to Promote Inclusivity

When Nahuel Guzmán began playing for Tigres UANL in Liga MX nearly a decade ago, the Argentinian goalkeeper is the first to admit he didn’t understand the hate and division spewed from Mexican supporters yelling “p-to” during goal kicks.

The homophobic slur, which roughly translates to “male prostitute,” has plagued Mexican soccer for years. It wasn’t until the start of 2022 when the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) announced fans would be given five-year bans from stadiums if they were identified saying it.

“Being able to meet people who are behind this struggle, especially for inclusion and against homophobia, has helped me understand,” Guzmán says via a translator. “I like to say that I learned to have another look—to be more empathetic with the LGBTQ+ community, above all, and well, nowadays whenever I can I repudiate it.”

While Guzmán continues to raise awareness in support of an inclusive community—in 2020, El Patón dyed his hair like the rainbow Pride flag—unfortunately, anti-gay chants, slurs and sentiments are still expressed throughout the world’s most-popular sport despite clubs, leagues and governing bodies preaching inclusivity, acceptance and diversity.

In 2020, San Diego Loyal SC walked off the field and forfeited the game when Collin Martin, who came out as gay two years prior, was verbally harassed by Phoenix Rising’s Junior Flemmings during a USL Championship match; Flemmings was later suspended for six matches for the anti-gay slur.

Many of the efforts to combat homophobia and promote inclusivity unfortunately remain siloed and reactionary rather than proactive and united.

In an effort to promote inclusion and diversity in The Beautiful Game, Common Goal, a pledge-based movement aiming to unite the global soccer community to tackle social challenges, launched Play Proud in 2018 with USWNT and OL Reign star Megan Rapinoe to “create methodology and train coaches and other sports professionals to address discrimination and create inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ youth.” 

While attempting to tackle the problem at the youth level, Common Goal found mirrored problems at every level of the sport whether it was with fan groups, grassroots organizations or even at the professional level.

“Instead of continuing to put these Band-Aids on these issues or just working with youth or pro teams, we need to think collectively about how we can work and incentivize each other to do better,” says Lilli Barrett-O’Keefe, executive director at Common Goal North America. “We have to look at it as a capital investment into people and culture. We’re investing in building a culture of inclusivity from the front office to the stands.”

In order to provide a unified effort against homophobia and division in soccer, Play Proud is bringing together eight clubs from seven key markets across North America for more than 100 hours of LGBTQ+ training and education. The first five-day workshop will be hosted by Angel City FC from April 11-15 in Los Angeles; the second session will be hosted by Tigres in December in Monterrey, Mexico.

Chicago Fire FC and Philadelphia Union of MLS, Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC of NWSL, Tigres UANL of Liga MX, Oakland Roots SC and San Diego Loyal SC of USL, and Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League will be represented by a club/front office representative, fan rep and community-based rep at these sessions.

“The idea of coming together across clubs, countries and leagues and demonstrating an ability to cooperate to address a singular problem that affects all of us is very important for people to see,” says Evan Whitfield, Chicago Fire vice-president of equity, alumni relations and engagement. “Sports are models, and demonstrating to people that this diverse group of individuals and entities can come together for a common cause is super beneficial. 

“Football is a game for all people. To believe for a moment that only certain types of people love the sport is insanity.”

Highlighted by more than 100 hours of in-person LGBTQ+ inclusion training by Common Goal and partners Inside Inclusion, Impact International and Stonewall UK, the initiative not only hopes to unite clubs from across North America, but provide a holistic, 365-days-a-year approach to create safe, inclusive spaces for fans, stadium employees, front office staff and players, particularly as the continent looks ahead to hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

The initiative comes at a key moment with LGBTQ+ rights under attack from U.S. lawmakers who have filed a record 238 anti-LGBTQ+ bills so far in 2022; there were 41 bills in 2018. Trans athletes including Caster Semenya, Lia Thomas, Emily Bridges and Laurel Hubbard have also come under fire, garnering endless headlines ranging from love and support to pure hate. 

“Timing is never going to be perfect, no matter what lens or perspective you look through on this initiative,” says KK Clark, San Diego Wave supporter group liaison and the club’s Play Proud fan rep. “Some would say it’s reactive, some would say it’s proactive and some would say it’s just the right timing. … It’s not about timing, it’s just about the initiative. What makes this so unique for professional soccer in North America is that it isn’t just about the clubs, it’s about the fan bases and it’s about the community partners and it’s bringing those folks to the table.”

Community organizations including Football for Her, Soccer Without Borders, Futbol Mas, Canada SCORES, American Scores Chicago, Starfinder Foundation, Chicano Federation, and YMCA of San Diego Country will all have a seat at the table as part of this program, which also includes AR-activated merchandise in partnership with Amplifier with 100% of proceeds benefiting Play Proud.

“Clubs, leagues and governing sports bodies need to think more collectively and systemically towards how we can work 365 days a year to create these spaces for LGBTQ people in the game,” Barrett-O’Keefe says. “It’s not this Pride Month commercialization where teams have one Pride day per year. LGBTQ+ people see through that. Allies see through that. Young people see through that. 

“These clubs are the perfect example of putting their time and their money where their mouth is.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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