Episode 264: You Want Diversity in MLS, and the National Teams? Okay, These Things Must Change.
As a soccer nation, we have a diversity problem, on and off the field. And in more ways, than you might think. Although we generally seem to be aware that a diversity problem exists, we don t appear to have a good grasp of the root causes, which is likely why we have not made significant progress in solving anything. As Gary Kleiban, 3four3 s Founder stated on Twitter: Soluble problems will continue to persist unless the root is both identified and undone. If we re talking about racism and diversity being a systemic thing, which more and more people seem to be coming around to, then the change itself must be a systemic one. People often think the problem is solving the diversity of players, or coaches, or GM s. People think that changes in these areas is going to enable the systemic change we so badly need in our country. The reality is that you can fill MLS with Black and Latino GM s and franchise presidents – and nothing would change. Because the problem is bigger than that. Much bigger than that. It s about opportunity, and ownership. In turn, these things would have a greater impact on those positions that I just mentioned. So, today, we re going to examine the disenfranchisement, discrimination, and lack of diversity throughout soccer in America throughout the ranks. More importantly, we re going to expose the root of the problem American soccer suffers from. You might have seen some people telling us, Now is not the time to be talking about this stuff. Okay, but if we don t educate now, then when? When we ve brought up discrimination over the past ten years, it went ignored. Now, with the recent events, it s imperative we continue discussing it. And we re going to discuss it again, and again, and again. This isn t taking advantage of current tragedies, on the contrary, we ve been beating this drum in public for a decade. It s the ones who haven t been highlighting this over the past ten years that we should all be suspect of. People and organizations that are pandering by riding the wave of public perception. The inequality and injustices we fight in other facets of society run rampant and unchecked in American soccer, partly because of the it s just a game narrative that is conveniently pushed during times like these. It s not just a game, though. It s so much more than just a game. You know that. That s why you re listening to this podcast. Sports, and soccer specifically, have social, political, and economic implications attached to them, all of which affect the livelihoods of millions of individuals, communities, and entire nations. So, when we talk about diversity and inclusion, we cannot brush aside the fact that, like any other sector, sport is a battleground for equality and opportunity. The Obvious, and Measurable Problems To illustrate one of the most obvious examples of the diversity problem we suffer from in American soccer, we can take a look at the history of head coaches in Major League Soccer: MLS has only hired 5 full-time black head coaches in its 25-year history. Put differently, only 3.2% of the league’s full-time head coaches have been black. Additionally, none of those black coaches have been born in America. On several occasions, MLS has hired black head coaches on an interim basis, like Cobe Jones for LA Galaxy, but the fact remains that just 5 out of their 156 full-time head coaching hires have been a black coach. In 2018, I interviewed Justin Reid regarding the lack of diversity amongst NCAA soccer head coaches and administrators. According to Reid, out of 528 NCAA first division soccer programs, both men s and women s, only 43 coaches were identified as Black or Latino. It should be noted that the lack of minority coaches also has an impact on players. Referencing a statement from Mark McKenzie made about having a black coach, former MLS player Amobi Okugo pointed out in a blog post, it s just different when you have a coach that can understand you and has gone through some of the same things you went through. Justin Reid also noted that out of 326 Division 1 NCAA Athletic Directors only 20 were Black. The problems only got worse in regard to the breakdown of men and women in those same roles. And even worse again when it came to minority women. This has a major impact on the hiring process when it comes to head coaches, assistants, and beyond. Patrice Parris, a coach that Justin Reid spoke with while gathering his data, said, A majority of the hires that take place at the NCAA level are based on networking, rather than one s body of work. Society in general relies heavily on personal networks when hiring. For example, if a college student is looking to intern for a tech firm over summer, he might increase his chances by reaching out to a founder that is in his fraternity network. Fraternities and sororities tend to offer job support to past and present members. American soccer at the professional level is frequently referred to as a fraternity. Its members are part of a fortunate group of people who happened to have been around when pro soccer got another jumpstart with MLS 25 years ago. So, if that fraternity is not diverse, it should be no surprise that hiring based principally on that network would continue to produce a lack of diversity. This is what s known as a vicious cycle . Here s another example of network hiring. As of June 2020, the Major League Soccer Players Association Executive Board featured six white men and just one minority. Historically, the Executive Board has been made up of predominantly white guys. Many of these Executive Board members have moved on to serve as coaches or executives within the league, and many others have been hired to work in media positions for MLS and USSF s partners. For example: Ben Olsen has been the coach of D.C. United for a number of years Alexi Lalas has served as GM of LA Galaxy and NY Red Bull, as well as multiple media roles with ESPN and Fox Chris Klein was President of LA Galaxy Landon Donovan has served as an analyst for multiple networks, including ESPN and FOX Tim Howard has served as an analyst for TNT Why is this important to point out? Well, the MLS PA Executive Board is charged with representing all MLS players at the bargaining table when it comes to negotiating things like the CBA. But the Executive Board also represents the collective voice of the players when speaking to the public, whether its in celebration of an achievement, or in times of peril, such as a pandemic, or mass protests. And, like Mark McKenzie pointed out, the message hits differently when you feel like you re connected to the messenger. It comes down to minorities having the opportunity, and the platform, to express themselves, deliver a message, and ultimately represent their communities. But it is those opportunities that are denied in this country, and the vicious cycle of network hiring which we just discussed is but one aspect that contributes to the ongoing problem we face. What do I see For quite some time, I ve questioned whether or not the MLS, and by extension, the U.S. Men s National Team, properly represents the people that make up American soccer. It s hard to say what s coming next without putting it into some sort of context. So, here it goes. I view American soccer through my lens. I grew up playing competitively and ended my career after just one season of collegiate soccer. I ve coached for more than fifteen years, both boys and girls. I ve also refereed just about every level, from youth recreational games to NCAA to Men s semi-professional. Throughout all of my experiences playing and coaching, I ve found it to be very rare that a Hispanic player has not been the best player on the field. Yet, growing up, and into my adult years as a fan of the U.S. Men s National Team, I ve always found it strange that there were so few Hispanic players on the team. Especially ones with the attacking skillsets that I was so accustomed to playing and coaching against in Central and Southern California. According to Census estimates from 2019, Los Angeles is a county comprised of nearly 50% Hispanics and Latinos. That culture is traditionally a soccer-first culture, but that isn t what I remember seeing on TV when I was growing up watching the Los Angeles Galaxy. The star players were Landon Donovan and David Beckham. Don t get me wrong, those guys were great players, but what happened to all of those Hispanic guys I played against? And the guys I coached? And the guys I coached against? Did they just disappear? No. And I don t buy into the fall through the cracks narrative. I don t even buy into the the system is broken narrative. Because I honestly believe that the system is working perfectly because it’s built upon a foundation of disenfranchisement. MLS, with permission granted by US Soccer, is purposefully designed to keep certain people in, and certain people out. Yes, you heard me correctly. A closed league like MLS is all about exclusion. Community outreach programs or diversity task forces only serve as PR stunts due to the fact they never actually hit the essence of what inclusion, and equal opportunity actually means. This is why we continually fight for a system designed around inclusion. Now, with all of that said, are you able to start seeing how the lack of diversity ties into promotion and relegation? Who Represents Who? In 2020, how is it that just two MLS franchises are supposed to accurately represent the soccer-rich culture of Los Angeles? The real answer is: They can t. Sure, there are USL teams and whatnot, but the real soccer culture in Los Angeles exists at the fringe, in Men s Leagues, pick up games, and other unaffiliated organizations that are effectively and purposefully excluded by US Soccer and MLS. This so-called fringe soccer culture is made up of primarily immigrant communities. I remember growing up watching my dad play with a group of Croatian s in the men s leagues