For as long as sporting contests are played by human beings, sports will always serve as a microcosm of society. As racism, oppression, and hate speech have no place in any civilized society, it has no place in sports, and yet we continue to see incidents of it both domestically and abroad. We (the royal “we,” that is) simply tolerate intolerant behavior far too often.
Whether this behavior is truly on the rise, if those who exhibit this behavior are being emboldened to do so lately by something, or if a refusal to put up with it any longer is simply leading to it being called out more often — or if it’s a combination of these things — is a matter for a much deeper study than this post will provide. The bottom line is that such ugly behavior is still being carried onto the pitch and it needs to stop. The vast majority of us are at least rational enough to know it needs to stop, and we want it to stop, but it isn’t stopping and those in a position to stop it or at least reduce its frequency are simply not doing so.
Major League Soccer recently had an opportunity to send a message about the use of such behavior on the pitch, but chose to send the wrong one. Last weekend’s match between the San Jose Earthquakes and New York Red Bulls went through a lengthy delay in the second half, when San Jose striker Jeremy Ebobisse, who is Black, said that a Red Bulls player — striker Dante Vanzeir, as it turned out — used a racial slur. Some pushing and shoving among the team’s players ensued, and referee Ismir Pekmic spent quite awhile gathering information.
During that time, it appeared that Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Coronel was informing manager Gerhard Struber what had taken place. Struber opted not to remove Vanzeir from the match. Vanzeir was shown milling about, smiling sheepishly. It’s impossible for people who weren’t on the pitch to know what information was being conveyed, so there was no proof that Struber was aware of exactly what took place, but the video didn’t paint him in the best light with the way things turned out.
The in-game investigation at Red Bull Arena by Pekmic also wasn’t immediately apparent to those in the stands, nor to fans around the league, and a photo of fourth official Chris Penso holding up a sign with more than 20 minutes of stoppage time went viral on social media. It’s simply not normal to see so much stoppage time tacked on. New York’s Tom Barlow scored in the 17th minute of injury time, and the game finished tied at 1-1.
News of why the match was stopped for so long eventually spread, and Vanzeir’s and Struber’s actions fell under intense scrutiny. Vanzeir reportedly owned up to saying something offensive, and the club announced soon after that the forward had “stepped away” from the team so as to avoid creating distractions. On Thursday, Vanzeir was suspended for six games and fined an undisclosed amount by Major League Soccer.
As a minor addendum, Vanzeir also may not play in the U.S. Open Cup, exhibition games or in MLS NEXT Pro matches during his suspension, and he must participate in training and education sessions. MLS purports to have “zero tolerance” for racist behavior on its pitch and in its stands, yet this punishment shows that the league has at least some tolerance for it.
As is usually the case, money is a central factor in this situation. MLS rosters are largely constructed around a small number of talented and expensive players the league calls “Designated Players.” Vanzeir is one of those and, as such, is a major investment by the club’s ownership. Kicking him out of the league or suspending the forward for the rest of the season would indeed send a stronger message, and one more in line with an actual policy of zero tolerance, but it would also likely have a competitive impact on both the Red Bulls and the Eastern Conference.
It would take time for New York to find and secure the services of a roster replacement. On-field results could impact attendance. Jobs could be lost both on the technical side and in other areas. I’m not unsympathetic to the club or its fans, but if this kind of behavior isn’t dealt with in a stronger manner, what is the incentive for teams to improve their vetting process when recruiting potential players? What serves as a deterrent for the next incident?
As for Red Bulls fans, many of them have recognized that there is an issue bigger than soccer at play. The supporters groups have been vocal proponents of harsher punishment for Vanzeir, even though it could hurt their team on the field. Empire SC immediately denounced the punishment as insufficient.
Vikings Army SC issued a statement that its members intend to walk out in protest at tonight’s match.
The South Ward issued a strong statement as well, calling for harsher punishment of Vanzeir and the dismissal of Struber, who was not punished by MLS. The South Ward also pointed the finger at the club for not doing more.
It is commendable to see fans put the need for social change above the success of their sports team. It’s also a shame that such actions are still necessary in this day and age.
Unlike the messaging from fans, the messaging that came out of this week from those in positions to do something was unacceptable on all counts. The league released a statement saying, “MLS has zero tolerance for abusive and offensive language and takes these allegations seriously.”
As mentioned above, six games looks a lot more like tolerance at a level much higher than zero. If the league truly wants to stamp out such behavior, it needs to do more than mandate some training and force a player to sit out for a few games. Similarly, if the league fails to act strongly enough, there is no reason why its member clubs can’t hold its employees accountable at a higher standard than MLS does.
Vanzeir’s statement Monday said: “I will do everything I can to be part of the change that needs to happen in this sport and our world. I also want to apologize to my teammates, coaches, the organization and our fans. I made a mistake and will take all the necessary steps to grow. While I did not intend to cause any harm or offense with my language, I know that I did and for that I am deeply sorry.”
This seems disingenuous when you consider that hate speech, by its very nature, is intended to cause harm or offense. There is no purpose for using it outside of inflicting harm/offense toward someone. None. While Vanzeir is Belgian and therefore a language barrier may exist to some extent, MLS mandates training for all players that should clearly indicate what is and is not permissible and this includes languages other than English.
Racist behavior, or sexism, or discrimination against others for sexuality, age, physical impairment, or any other reason may never be fully eradicated, but societal intolerance of it can be achieved. That requires widespread buy-in, regardless of monetary or time considerations.
The Vanzeir incident could happen anywhere and it has happened in many places, including other MLS cities. It could affect any club. As such, I reached out to Orlando City to inquire about what the league’s exact mandates are in terms of training players/staff on offensive language and what the club is doing. The club referred me to the league offices rather than get into specifics about what MLS and/or the NWSL require, however, an OCSC spokesman did respond with some insight as to what takes place at Orlando City SC, stating the club’s standards exceed what is required by the league(s).
“Each season, our club holds anti-harassment training and, as part of that, all players and all club staff (front office and technical) are given training on prohibited speech — across a number of languages — by our in-house and outside counsel. For us, this is something we are really proud of as it goes beyond what is required by either league, and we feel we are setting the standard for across MLS and NWSL. Overall, we’ve increased our investment in a number of trainings across the club, which again, all go beyond what is required by the leagues, but something we feel is very important in developing the best culture and expectations for our players and our staff members.”
I had also hoped to gain some insight as to whether there is some vetting process when the club is considering signing players, because that is important. After all, the club’s athletes and personnel will spend a great deal of time inside Exploria Stadium, a venue that includes 49 colored seats in a rainbow pattern. Those seats are in remembrance of the victims of the 2016 terrorist attack at the Pulse nightclub leveled at the LGBTQ community — a tragedy with effects that still ripple through our city.
In the history of sport, there have always been clubs that put more (or less) emphasis on the character of their players than others. The way soccer operates worldwide, and often on conflicting schedules, makes it difficult to perform due diligence to ascertain players’ attitudes, beliefs, and values. While I’m sure that some vetting takes place, it’s difficult to know the extent of that without more transparency.
It’s going to take the global soccer village to eliminate — or at least greatly reduce — these kinds of incidents. It’s certainly going to require leagues and clubs to deal with them more harshly. Beyond that, it’s going to take the entire global community to eliminate such behavior in society.
Progress has been made in many places but there’s still a long way to go. Even the lengthiest journey can be a worthwhile one.