When it comes to diversity, MLS isn’t just paying lip service.
On Tuesday, the league announced enhancements to its diversity hiring policy, another step in its ongoing effort to make the game more representative of not just the country, but the sport itself. And the policy has real teeth.
Starting immediately, basically, it’s a requirement to bring in Black folks. According to MLS, “two or more non-white candidates, one of whom must be Black/African American, as part of a renewed effort to prioritize opportunities for Black candidates. Previously, the policy only required one diverse candidate to be interviewed for an open position.”
For those unfamiliar, the closest comparison is the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which in two decades of application has been relatively controversial as well as effective. As for MLS officials, they’re doing it their way. If a team fails to adhere to the policy, there’s real accountability. First offense: $50,000. Second offense? $100,000. Third, then commissioner Don Garber decides.
The penalties aren’t designed to be embarrassing but simply provide some teeth to something the league takes seriously.
“It’s less about the punitive aspect of it, right. It’s much more about that we have an accountability to one another to change the complexion of the league when it comes to the head coaches,” said Sola Winley, the executive vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for MLS. “We’re committed to do that from the ownership on down. The gap that we can, the opportunity that we have right now is to make up the difference between representation as it relates to our Black players. And what we’ve talked a lot about is the difference between diversity and equity. And we’re looking for more equitable representation as it relates to the Black player pool of which 25% of the players are Black.”
What makes this a fascinating step in the right direction is that unlike the power balance of the NFL — which was effectively built on racial dynamics and politics that made the league so segregated between its player pool and coaches/front offices — MLS’ identity is still evolving. Black Players for Change (BPC), an independent organization made up of MLS players, coaches and staff, launched in June 2020. In June of this year, a community initiative was launched on Juneteenth, no less. Now, MLS is putting its money where its mouth is.
The sheer youth of the league, relatively, and its rapid expansion means that foundational policy changes and best practices really can help shape the future of the sport overall. We’re not talking about some harebrained memo from a commissioner trying to make a splash. There were a good dozen-plus people involved in this process.
With the inclusion of BPC and Soccer Collective on Racial Equality (SCORE), the goal is to affect the entire MLS ecosystem, down to the academy level. The new policy also includes the creation of a Diversity Policy Portal in which clubs must submit all details of vacant technical positions and include information related to all candidates in the final candidate pool. In short, pay attention and keep paying attention.
Four months ago, high atop the legendary LA Memorial Coliseum, MLS did something new before its All-Star Game across the street. The league, through its division MLS Works, organized an event called “Wealth Equity: Building Bridges to Prosperity.” Organized in conjunction with 100 Black Men of America, and BPC, the goal was to talk about real-life effects of how money moves in and around the league.
Just the basic nature of the event was fascinating. At the time, Quincy Amarikwa (BPC founder) was particularly impressive and a good example of what the modern pro soccer player looks and thinks like. But with a league that’s less than three decades old and currently at 27 teams with plans to expand to 29, timing is critical.
“I think everything’s about timing, right, that things happen when they are intended to happen,” Winley said on Monday. “And so whatever the factors are, that went into this being the moment here we are, and so there could be no other moment for this to happen other than this moment. So it could be a confluence of things, it could be the maturity of the league, it could be the energy that the executive team and that the committee put behind it. But I view it just philosophically that things always happen when they’re intended to happen.”
One of the lazier criticisms of any form of affirmative action is that it doesn’t foster whatever notion we have of human ingenuity within ourselves and rewards laziness, and can backfire if you get too close to basically just mandating quotas.
Robin Fraser, head coach of the Colorado Rapids, knows a thing or two about how the interview process alone can be demoralizing and difficult.
“I’ve been through several head-coaching interviews, and some were legitimate and some were not. There was even one … the most recent one I did before I got hired in Colorado,” Fraser explained. “I was already told who the organization was going to hire, which it turns out they did. And I know that another candidate dropped out when he heard that. And for me, I just took advantage of every opportunity to articulate what I thought. And when you have to articulate something, you really have to drill down on the details. I’m not sure how you actually put it all together without actually going through the process. I’ve had a couple of interviews that I’ve felt were complete lip service. I didn’t let it deter me, because I think there’s still positives to take from that.”
He sees the latest news as simply an opportunity for more people to start taking themselves seriously as leaders. If the league specifically has a vested interest in keeping and developing its own, hell it might work. Lord knows that many of the Black MLS stars of, say, my own youth on the pitch aren’t really anywhere near the game in any visible way.
“I remember when I first came to this country, I loved everything American. Football, baseball, basketball, the whole thing. And there weren’t any Black coaches when I came here in the ’70s in any sport [really],” Fraser noted. “So, you have so many more Blacks playing now than were playing 40 years ago. And it’s the same process whereby there are so many coaches in the league now who have played in the league, and it just gives it even more authenticity than when the league was coached by a bunch of guys who had been in the U.S. forever, but never really played professionally or coached professionally.”
Allen Hopkins Jr. of SCORE was extremely excited about the entire process. Just being a Black person in soccer (as a former player and commentator) meant his natural network was already pretty robust. So when he was called upon, he put it to use.
“The best description I say is, I created basically a database to start this pipeline. And I’ve just been … I’m no different than the guy selling good beats out of the back of his trunk at the gas station,” Hopkins explained. “But luckily now — and I do say that, luckily, very intentional — what Major League Soccer is doing to give us all voices and real participation at the table is just … it’s new. It’s refreshing. And it’s awesome, because we have real allyship and real sponsorship to really create that threshold of people of color and underrepresented folks in our game.”
Hopkins is the kind of guy who doesn’t just talk in generalized platitudes, he’s well-versed enough to name a person for pretty much every job he can think of. And not just in soccer. An avid gardener in his personal life, it’s a perfect analogy for what he thinks this league is trying to accomplish.
“I’m a gardener at heart. And I tell people all the time to really synthesize what I do is, I get your soil, right. You grow anything, right? I focus on the soil, you decide where you’re going to grow, how you’re going to grow it. And the soil right now is right,” Hopkins said.
A lot of people with a lot of ideas can be a source of confusion and scatterbrained messaging, depending on how well everyone is organized. But on Tuesday, MLS took a step. There’s no reason not to find your best and brightest and just ask them how they think things can improve. It’s amazing what a little good faith balance of power can do for societal production.
“I tell people all the time, you know, I’ve been Black my whole life. And the last five years, and especially the last two years, it’s never been more important,” Hopkins said confidently. “And this has given me a voice, has given me clarity on what I want to leave for the game. And what I want to leave is this rich soil for all of these opportunities to grow and all these people to grow, because the game will be better.”