Lapchick: MLS continues progress in racial, gender hiring

Editor's note: Richard Lapchick is a human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, expert on sports issues, scholar and author.

Argentina's victory over France in the men's World Cup averaged 25.78 million viewers in the United States, the most ever for a men's match. This ranked second of all time for any soccer match in the United States, behind the 2015 Women's World Cup final, in which the U.S. defeated Japan. That match drew a combined 26.7 million viewers. The heightened interest augured well for the growth of soccer in the United States. And, of course, that is good news for Major League Soccer (MLS).

The release of the 2022 Major League Soccer Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida brings MLS even more good news.

MLS earned an A for racial hiring practices, a B for gender hiring practices and an overall grade of B+. The league had a major improvement in its gender grade, going form 74.7 points in 2021 to 81.2 points in 2022. The overall grade was 86.0 points, up substantially from 83.2 points last year. Although still an A, there was a slight decrease in the MLS grade for racial hiring practices, with a score of 90.8, down from last year's 91.7 points. Most of that drop can be attributed to TIDES updating its grading scale to reflect the 2020 Census data in which racial and ethnic minorities totaled 42.2% of the population. Using the previous scale, MLS would have shown an increase with 92.2 points.

TIDES used data from the 2022 season and conducted an analysis of the racial composition of team general managers, players and coaches. In addition, the report card included a racial and gender breakdown of management in the MLS league office and at various levels within each MLS franchise, including C-suite personnel, team senior administration, team professional administration, athletic trainers and game officials. The league office provided all data pertaining to the MLS league office and the aggregate team data.

The league office, led by commissioner Don Garber, once again received high marks and represented the growth the league wishes to see in racial and gender hiring efforts in comparison to their team counterparts. The league office continues to have an outstanding record for people of color, at 43.4%. Women held 40.5% of the league office positions. Additionally, 19.1% of league office employees were women of color.

The teams continue to lag, however. The positions of head and assistant coaches both declined in 2022. The percentage of head coaches of color in the MLS decreased from 42.9% in 2021 to 35.7% in 2022, while the assistant coaches of color decreased from 34.2% to 32.1%. Nonetheless, head and assistant coaches continued to hold the highest percentage of persons of color among all team positions. People of color who held team senior administration positions in the MLS decreased slightly to 15.9% from 17.0% in 2021.

But there were improvements in both racial and gender categories at the team level. In 2022, there were five people of color (19.2%) holding the position of CEO/president, an increase of 5.3 percentage points from 2021. The percentage of general managers of color increased from 18.8% in 2021 to 20.0% in 2022. When it comes to other crucial off-field positions, key decision-making roles of team vice presidents and C-suite executives had notable improvements in diverse representation. The percentage of team vice presidents of color increased significantly, from 19.4% in 2021 to 23.4%, an all-time high for MLS in 2022. Of all team C-suite positions, people of color increased slightly, from 23.3% in 2021 to 23.5% in 2022. Women held 34.6% of all C-suite positions, a significant increase of 5.8 percentage points from 28.8% in 2021. The percentage of women holding team senior administration positions increased by 4.1 percentage points, from 24.1% in the 2021 season to 28.2% in 2022. Women of color held 6.5% of these positions.

For racial hiring practices, MLS earned an A+ for players and league office employees; an A for head coaches; an A- for professional administration and assistant coaches; a B- for C-suite executives and vice presidents; a C for team CEO/presidents and general managers; a C- for senior administration; and a D for majority owners/investors.

For gender hiring practices, MLS earned an A- for league office employees, while C-suite executives and professional administration received a B and both team vice presidents and senior administration earned a C. MLS had an F for majority owners/investors, and team CEO/presidents.

"Our athletes serve as champions for us on and off the field of play, because through sports they create an atmosphere where everyone can be valued, everyone has a role and everyone can participate in a common goal for the greater good," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and leader of Rainbow/PUSH, shared with me after reviewing the 2022 MLS report card. "Therefore, the world of sports is much more than THE GAME, because those gifted athletes on the field are supported by hundreds of people off the field serving as coaches, trainers, executives, team personnel, stadium workers, media teams, league officials and others who make the world a SPORTS a beautiful place.

"Soccer has been the most popular sport in the world, and they continue to ensure that people of every nation, culture and creed have a seat at the table. The message is simple: When we all PLAY... We all WIN!"

In January 2022, Kristin Bernert of Columbus Crew was hired as president of business operations, which brought the total to four women holding the title of president/CEO. Susan "Dee" Haslam of Columbus Crew and Carolyn Kindle Betz of St. Louis SC are the only women majority owners. MLS has nine women of color as minority owners.

In October 2020, MLS established a board of governors DEI committee as a standing committee to provide strategic support for the league and its teams to advance DEI. The committee is made up of club owners, league executives, current players, former players and youth leaders. The committee's area of emphasis "is to develop programs and initiatives to increase access, engagement, representation, opportunity, and participation for diverse communities at the League and Clubs as well as the broader sport of soccer." The committee meets in conjunction with regularly scheduled MLS board meetings. The committee is co-chaired by Sola Winley, the league's chief DEI officer. It is the only league committee to have an MLS staff member as a co-chair.

Among the crucial social justice initiatives is MLS WORKS, a partnership with the U.S. Soccer Foundation to help build mini-pitches in MLS markets (Safe Places to Play), offering children in underserved communities a safe place to play and supports free after-school programming (Soccer for Success), which uses soccer as a tool to address juvenile delinquency, while promoting healthy habits, inclusion, and encourages the development of critical life skills through caring coach-mentors and family engagement.

In addition, MLS put together a $25 million loan from a group of Black-owned banks. This is historic because it is the first time any sports league has participated in a major commercial transaction exclusively with Black-owned banks. The nonprofit National Black Bank Foundation (NBBF) is facilitating the partnership.

While almost all of the MLS news is good news and, coupled with the increased interest in soccer in the United States as reflected in the huge audience that watched the World Cup, there has to be a note of caution. For years, soccer in Europe has been plagued by racism and antisemitism among the fans. Just three weeks before the World Cup, players in the English Premier League took a knee as part of its "No Room for Racism" campaign. While it is encouraging that the EPL is taking such action, racist acts are still seen among fans across Europe, with bananas being thrown at Black players, chants of "you're a monkey" aimed at Black players and hundreds of fans of a Croatian soccer club marching in the streets with a Nazi salute. It has been an ongoing issue, but fears are that with far-right governments being formed in Italy and Sweden, fans could become emboldened to continue with their racist acts. I hope that the "No Room for Racism " campaign expands outside of England and is actually effective.

There is no sign of this in soccer in the U.S., and I believe leaders of MLS are steadfast in their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. I encourage them to be vigilant in addressing racist outside forces. In the meantime, I am encouraged by their progress on so many fronts for increasing the number of people of color and women throughout Major League Soccer.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.