At this point, I think everyone who pays attention to MLS knows what Alan Gordon said last week. The punishment (three games, and another for the red card he collected) has been handed down, and the requisite apology has been made via press release. Gordon's statement offers the well-worn platitudes of "that's not who I am, I'm not that kind of person, I made a mistake". It's easy to get cynical about hearing that - it seems to be the standard script when an athlete gets caught saying or doing something they shouldn't. It's easy to dismiss Gordon as another meathead jock reciting lines from the team PR person. But you know what? I'm willing to believe him. I'm willing to believe that Alan Gordon (or Collin Clark, or Kobe Bryant) is not a rampant homophobe and therefore a terrible person.
Because this is the point where we teach instead of condemn. This is the point where we recognize the culture that has allowed words like "faggot" to be the go-to insult on the field. This is the point where we change that culture.
This is where we create the conditions to eliminate slurs about race and sexuality and gender from the lexicon of soccer, and from life. Because we so vociferously call out these incidents, because we drag the perpetrators before the court of public opinion, we are affecting noticeable change on the culture of the game, and the culture of support.
Where we build a better tomorrow, if you will.
There's a tendency to promote the idea that the casual homophobia of sports culture isn't really that bad. Maybe that's because it's hard to call it outright homophobia - but the frequency of the casually dropped "that's gay" or "no homo" in the locker room is just as hurtful and damaging as screaming "fucking faggot" on the pitch. The latter makes you angry, is easy to condemn and decry on twitter. The micro-aggressions of unthinking homophobia make you uncomfortable. They're harder to call out without looking "over-sensitive". And that's why they need to be addressed just a badly as slurs screamed in the heat of the moment. Athletes who have come out - Robbie Rogers, in particular - have cited this atmosphere of casual homophobia as influential in their decisions to remain in the closet during their careers.
An opponent calling you a fag hurts. Your own teammates reducing your sexuality to an uncomfortable joke is worse. That's the culture of homophobia in sports that needs a spotlight shined on it.
The MLS fanbase has always impressed me with their inclusivity, with their willingness to call out players and other fans who use slurs loudly and publicly. But we need to do more. Knee-jerk reactionism has it's place, but in order to really change the culture of the game, we need to keep talking about it beyond the few hours after the game. We need to stop denying or diminishing the power of words to hurt - and we need to recognize that just because we haven't seen it or experienced it, doesn't mean it doesn't happen.
So next time you hear your buddy at the tailgate say "that's so gay", call him out. Next time your favorite player hashtags something "#nohomo", call him out. You don't have to get angry, you just have to speak up.
And as for athletes like Alan Gordon, who find themselves on the wrong end of a gay slur, well. They can do two things: make their apologies and slink off into the night, or - the far better option - use their new notoriety to keep this conversation in the limelight. Don't just apologize. Actively change your behavior, and encourage others to do the same. If it was really a mistake, own it, and learn from it.
Because sports are for everyone, and we can't call something "the beautiful game" if we allow this kind of ugliness to exist. Let's be better.
[For further resources and information, there are a number of organizations dedicated specifically to homophobia and inclusivity in sports. I personally recommend Athlete Ally (www.athleteally.com), but also check out gay4soccer.com and youcanplayproject.org]