The president of the Tulsa Roughnecks cited the USL's "zero-tolerance policy" against hate speech as the reason for terminating the contract of midfielder Fabian Bastidas on Sunday, and added he wanted to send a message to the city and beyond that such behavior would not be tolerated.
The decision came in the wake of statements by Oklahoma City Energy FC defender/midfielder Atiba Harris that a Tulsa player, later identified as Bastidas, had racially abused him in Saturday's match between the two teams.
Harris later took to Twitter to report what he had experienced in the match. The Roughnecks conducted an investigation, and after Bastidas admitted to using a racial slur, the decision was made by president and part-owner Barry Williams, general manager Wayne Farmer, and head coach Michael Nsien to terminate the player's contract.
Williams, speaking exclusively to ESPN FC, added that the organization wanted to make a statement to the city of Tulsa and beyond, especially with the 100-year anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot -- one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history -- approaching. The Roughnecks have also aimed to build a diverse coaching staff and roster. Nsien is one of the few minority managers in the second-tier USL Championship, and the roster is comprised of players from 13 different countries.
"We still have a fairly segregated city," Williams said about Tulsa. "And with the way that the news has attached itself to this story, and to the sensitivity to the sport and our core values, our core beliefs, not only for me as part-owner and president of the organization, but within our team, we feel zero tolerance is zero tolerance."
Bastidas later posted his version of events on Instagram and Facebook, insisting that his use of the term was meant as a term of endearment.
"Nothing malicious or racist was or will ever be intended by it," Bastidas wrote.
For that reason, it has been suggested on social media and elsewhere that the Roughnecks could have used the incident as a teachable moment, but Williams said the club opted not to take that approach.
"The educational moment can come with some other team, but with this club, we wanted to make sure it was well known in this city that racial comments, racial slurs, and racism in any form is not welcomed, appreciated, or accepted," Williams said.
Williams confirmed that an 11th-minute encounter between Bastidas and Harris was the catalyst for what took place during Saturday's match. Video of the incident shows OKC Energy goalkeeper Cody Laurendi claiming a through ball near the top of the box, with Bastidas running around Harris and making light contact with Laurendi. Harris is then seen pulling away Bastidas, who responds by pushing back. Harris is then later seen pointing his finger in Bastidas' direction.
Williams confirmed that Harris then informed referee Eric Tattersall of what Bastidas had said, and while Tattersall can be seen speaking with Bastidas, no card was given. Williams also added that Harris informed Tulsa captain and former teammate Cyprian Hedrick of what had happened, and that Hedrick later told Bastidas to stop using such language.
Nsien said he received a phone call from OKC manager Steve Cooke after the match, informing him of what happened between Harris and Bastidas. He vowed to investigate, though Harris soon made the allegations public. Williams and Farmer soon were consulting with their counterparts at OKC, Bob Funk and Jason Hawkins. Nsien, Williams and Farmer confronted Bastidas the next day.
After consulting with the league, Tulsa made the decision to terminate Bastidas' contract and informed the player later on Sunday afternoon.
"[Bastidas] understood. I think he was disappointed," said Williams. "I think he was still not grasping the overall gravity of the situation outside of what happened in his individual game with that individual player. But he was certainly sincere in his apology and sincere in that he wished he had made some better decisions."
Nsien said he supported the Roughnecks' decision.
"I think what we're trying to build here [is] there's an ownership group here who has been supportive of me as one of the few African-American coaches in the sport, and the diversity of the players that we brought here are intentional about trying to build something that shows diversity," he said.
"In context or out of context, we think it's important that we set the precedent in the USL and maybe in the world of the actions that we think should be taken if these things continue. We felt like termination of the contract is something that we would support because we feel like that's what [the situation] deserves."