Collin Martin: A Study in Personal and Team Accountability

You may only dimly recall the name Collin Martin from a story that flashed by a while back…or you may have no idea at all who Collin Martin is or why he is important in any discussion of accountable leadership. That is about to change.

A midfielder for the San Diego Loyal in the USL Championship soccer league, Martin did something remarkable in June of 2018: He came out publicly as gay. This made him the only out gay man in the “big five” professional sports leagues of the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and USL.

Here is a side note: Martin was not the first openly gay male athlete in major American sports; that honor that belongs to center Jason Collins, who played for the Brooklyn Nets in 2014. Here is another side note: There has never been anyone who has been publicly out as gay or bisexual while playing in the NFL, MLB, or NHL. I tell you all this to let you know that, in addition to his sterling on-field performance (he was a standout as a college player for Wake Forest), Collin Martin has deep reservoirs of personal courage going for him.

And he is not alone.

In a match played in September of 2020, an opposing player used a racial epithet during a game against a San Diego Loyal team member. The offending player was suspended by the league. In response to the incident, the San Diego team issued a public statement condemning racism and all other forms of discrimination. In the Loyal’s very next match, a player used a homophobic slur against Collin Martin. The referee in charge of the game refused to take action when the San Diego players complained. What happened next is an object lesson in living the organization’s values during times of challenge.

The entire San Diego Loyal team walked off the field in support of their teammate, thus forfeiting the game. They were ahead at the time, and they were poised to make the playoffs. The forfeit kept the team out of the postseason.

The team’s immediate response on the field proved the team’s commitment to the organization’s stated values of rejecting discrimination in all of its forms. And so, later, did the front office’s response, which read as follows: “Last week we made it loud and clear that we do not stand for racism or homophobia. Nothing has changed this week.”

Why do I tell you this story? To remind you that accountability requires courage. Both the team and the organization showed that courage. They did not say, “What happens if we don’t make the playoffs.” They said, “This is what we said we value, and we stand by it.” By sticking to the value, even when the stakes are high, everyone in the organization knows that the value is real!

In this case, everyone was sticking to the value together, which means the bond connecting everyone in the organization just got stronger. It means they are investing in their relationships with each other. That means they will communicate better, they will have better teamwork, they will be more engaged, and they will be more productive. Make no mistake: All of that impacts the bottom line!

I share this story as a wakeup call for leaders. Here’s the moral: If you say something is a value, you had better be willing to protect that value and to make decisions that align with it. Because if you are not willing to do that, it is not your value, and you should not be surprised if you lose good people as a result of not being in alignment with your stated values.

Call it the Collin Martin Principle: Create values that have meaning, and that people want to be a part of…and then live those values!

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