By Mark Inabinett | AL.com
Birmingham Legion FC has signed one of the USL’s top goal-scorers, but forward Junior Flemmings won’t be in the lineup for the team’s first two matches of the 2021 season. Instead, the USL Championship’s 2020 Golden Boot winner will be completing a league-mandated suspension.
The USL imposed a six-game suspension on Flemmings for directing “foul and abusive language in the form of a homophobic slur” toward an opponent during the Phoenix Rising FC-San Diego Loyal match on Sept. 30.
“Legion FC and every individual associated with the club strongly condemns all racial and homophobic comments and actions,” said Jay Heaps, Legion FC president and general manager, in a statement released by the team. “We understand the importance of inclusion, respect and the impact our words have on those around us. We also believe that second chances provide opportunities for growth.”
After the incident during the Sept. 30 match, San Diego co-owner and coach Landon Donovan, the former U.S. men’s national team and MLS star, asked that Flemmings be removed from the game. When he wasn’t, San Diego walked off the pitch, resulting in a forfeit victory for Phoenix.
“I am very sorry about the incident with Collin Martin,” said Flemmings in a statement issued by Legion FC. “I understand the impact words have, and I will work hard to improve my on-field demeanor even in the heat of battle. I am grateful for this opportunity as I believe Birmingham is a great place for me to grow both on and off the field. I am excited to play for coach (Tom) Soehn and be a part of Legion FC’s strong locker-room culture.”
Martin is the only publicly gay athlete in the major U.S. male sports.
“Coming off the ending of last season, I’m happy for Junior to continue his impressive career in the USL,” said Martin in a statement released by Legion FC. “Personally, I didn’t want Junior’s career to end, but more importantly that we learn as players and as a society to be respectful of our differences. I’m optimistic that we will be better because of this and that Junior will help advocate for respect within our game. I wish Junior continued success at Legion FC.”
Donovan also said he was glad to see Flemmings get another chance in soccer.
“After the events at the end of our season last year, we made it very clear that we were standing up for what was right and weren’t looking to ruin anybody’s career,” Donovan said. “I’m hopeful that Junior has learned from this experience and will use it to have a positive impact on people going forward. We wish him the very best of luck in Birmingham.”
Legion FC signed the 24-year-old Flemmings to a one-year contract with a team option for a second season, pending league and federation approval and the completion of a P1 visa. Flemmings led USL Championship with 14 goals last season, but Phoenix did not exercise its option on his contract for another year after the 2020 campaign.
Flemmings also has played for the Jamaican national team as well as the USL’s New York Red Bulls II and Tampa Bay Rowdies in addition to Phoenix.
“Prior to moving forward, we had extensive conversations with Junior and his former coaches and teammates to better understand his character on and off the field,” Heaps said. “In addition, we spoke with Collin Martin and Landon Donovan to get their perspective on Legion FC giving Junior this opportunity. Lastly, we needed to look inward and make sure Legion FC has the appropriate structure in place to help our players as people, teammates, athletes and accepting members of the community.”
Legion FC plans to work with the Magic City Acceptance Center for sensitivity training seminars on the LGBTQ+ community and will undergo league-mandated sensitivity training and education through USL Championship’s partnership with the Institute for Sport and Social Justice.
“As a team, we believe in second chances and in opportunities for growth as people and as athletes,” Legion FC captain Mikey Lopez said. “We have a tight locker room at Legion FC, so if Junior continues to learn from this and comes in ready to work hard on the field, our group will support him.”