By John Boyle Herald Columnist
TUKWILA — Marc Burch won’t be on the field when the Seattle Sounders open their season on Saturday. He wishes he could be, but the left back also knows his suspension, handed down last fall, was deserved.
Burch crossed a line, one Major League Soccer has made clear it won’t tolerate having its players cross. So, Burch will be in a suit and not a uniform when the Sounders play their 2013 opener against Montreal.
When Burch was caught by TV cameras using a gay slur during last year’s playoff win over Real Salt Lake, MLS commissioner Don Garber suspended him for three games. Burch served two games of that suspension in Seattle’s playoff series against the L.A. Galaxy, but since the Sounders were eliminated from the postseason in that series, the third game of that suspension carried over to this season.
To his credit, Burch is owning his punishment. Missing two playoff games hurt, but it was deserved, he says.
“I knew when the suspension was coming down that it needed to be harsh, because it’s a harsh thing that I did,” Burch said Tuesday, talking to reporters for the first time since the incident in Salt Lake City.
“I think Don Garber made the right decision. I wish it would have been the end of the season and I could have started this season new and fresh and try to get it off of people’s minds, but three games is three games, and I’m ready to face it and start my season after it.”
Garber did do the right thing, not because Burch is some sort of hateful, bigoted person, but because a message needs to be sent that hateful language, even used in the heat of the moment, can’t be tolerated in sports or anywhere else in society. MLS is working harder than most leagues around the world to make it known that hateful speech, no matter the intent, has no place in the sport; that certain words should not be a part of our lexicon regardless of the intent.
Burch knows that no matter what he says or does, this will follow him through is career. He knows when you type his name into an internet search engine, “Gay slur” will be one of the first results that pops up after his name. He’s not asking you to forget, just that you give him a chance to prove he is better than that regrettable moment on the field.
“It will always be in the back of my mind,” he said. “You make a mistake and you want to fix it as much as you can, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. … I can’t make up for what I did, but all I can do is just prove from here on out that nothing like that will ever happen again. That’s not who I am, that’s not what I do, that’s not part of my game and it’s not part of this team’s game. I made a mistake, and since then I think I’ve been doing the right things, and that’s the only thing I can do from here on out.”
Burch’s actions since November indicate that he isn’t a person who should be defined by that hurtful two-word outburst. Burch quickly issued a sincere apology after the Salt Lake game and he went through sensitivity training.
With the help of the Sounders, Burch reached out to the local gay and lesbian soccer community, and in December he went to Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood to take part in a scrimmage with a gay soccer club. Neither Burch nor the Sounders alerted the media about it, there were no reporters or cameras. This wasn’t a P.R. stunt, it was just a little bit of healing on a soccer field. The game probably would have gone unnoticed to everyone but those who played in it if not for a player on the team writing about it on The Stranger’s website.
“Obviously, they knew of the incident, but it wasn’t something that needed to be spoken about,” Burch said. “They understood I wasn’t coming out there to make myself look good, but I just wanted to let them know that (the incident in Salt Lake) wasn’t who I am. When I went out there, I think everybody just appreciated the fact that I was out there to enjoy the game. Everybody had a good time.”
Both Burch’s unfortunate slur and the way he responded are relevant now more than ever not just in soccer but in sports in general.
Earlier this month, Burch’s former college teammate Robbie Rogers, a promising young player who has played in MLS, England and on the US national team, announced he was gay and that he was walking away from the game. Rogers has other passions he plans to pursue, but one can’t help but wonder how much his sexuality played into his decision to leave the game as he was just entering the prime of his career.
Sexual orientation shouldn’t be an issue in sports in a day and age when more and more states, including ours, have taken a stand for gay rights at the polls. But unfortunately that isn’t the case. Although several atyhletes have come out about their sexuality after retirement, no major American professional sports league has had an openly gay player. Burch hopes his sport can change that.
“I think so,” Burch said when asked if MLS players would be accepting to openly gay teammates. “… I think we’ll be the first league to definitely accept it, and I think it will come and go a lot easier than people think. I would hope that Robbie comes back, but if his passion’s in what he’s doing now, I completely support him. It’s going to happen and I think this is a perfect league for it.”
Let’s hope Rogers comes back and tests that theory out. More importantly, whether Rogers returns or not, let’s hope that what Burch did last fall and the way the league responded can remind athletes at all levels that there are certain lines that cannot be crossed; certain words we cannot toss around as casual insults. Three months ago Burch was a reminder that sports still have a ways to go in catching up with the rest of society when it comes to tolerance. In the time since, he’s shown that progress can be made.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.