Lapchick: MLS makes strides in creating inclusive environment

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

MLS fans soon will be immersed in the playoffs and the drama that surrounds them. But we hope that today's release of the 2021 Major League Soccer Racial and Gender Report Card by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida will also inspire fans to reflect on how far we have come -- and how far we have to go -- on matters of diversity, belonging, equity and inclusion in sports.

MLS earned an A for racial hiring, a C for gender hiring and an overall grade of B. While it was still a C, MLS improved its overall gender hiring score (74.7) for the first time in three years. While still excellent, its racial hiring grade score (91.7) decreased.

Trailing only the NBA and WNBA, Major League Soccer continues to set a standard in its league office with respect to racial and gender hiring. Commissioner Don Garber's league office earned an A+ in racial hiring and had an increase to a B+ in gender hiring. However, MLS fell short in other categories. While the MLS league office is represented by 40.3% people of color, the professional administration and senior administration categories on teams have only 23.6% and 17.0% of their employees who are people of color, respectively. The league office consists of 40.7% women, but the professional administration and senior administration categories on teams are only 30.6% and 24.1% women, respectively.

There was an historic hire of Danita Johnson, who is the first Black president of an MLS team.

The report card showed that MLS has an excellent representation of head coaches of color with 40.7%. The percentage of players of color is 61.7%, which is a slight increase from last year's MLS report. In 2021, 31.6% of MLS players reported as being Hispanic or Latinx. MLS, in turn, has 29.6% of its head coaches who are Hispanic or Latinx. No other U.S. men's professional league can come close to this ratio of players and head coaches of color.

In our most recent reports on the NFL and NBA, respectively, 57.5% and 73.2% of the players were Black in the largest racial category, but only 9.4% and 23.3% of the head coaches were African American. The largest racial category for players in MLB was Latino at 28.1%, but only 13.3% of the managers were Latino. MLS is a leader in providing an inclusive environment for its players and has a strong pipeline of diverse coaches that should continue to create an inclusive environment.

The first diversity, equity and inclusion committee in MLS history was founded on Oct. 19, 2020. It is one of four board-level standing committees. It includes members of the Black Players for Change and the Pitch Black employee resource group. Sola Winley, who became the league's first chief diversity officer this year, also serves as the only league office staff member on the DE&I committee as the co-chair. It oversees programs such as leaguewide Juneteenth program, MLS Unites to Vote, Soccer Upward Mobility and MLS is Back.

"I have been so impressed with the tremendous growth of Major League Soccer in recent years, and their very intentional priority to promote diversity within the sport," said the Rev. Jesse Jackson, founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. "There has been a noticeable increase of visibility of African Americans in particular both on and off the field, which is indicative of strong leadership and an ongoing focus to be completely inclusive. As always, I appreciate my friend Dr. Lapchick capturing this reality in his Annual Major League Soccer Report Card which reflects continued growth, improvement and impact. The athletic world has always been ahead of the curve as it pertains to the issues of social awareness, fairness and equality, and the strides that are made in sports often spark the fire of change that touch other parts of our society. Although professional soccer may not be as popular in this country as other major sports, their impact is unquestionable as they have played a significant role in the fight for justice and equality which continues to influence life beyond the playing field!"

This year, MLS has increased the pipeline that is in place for women to be leaders at the team level. This is exemplified by the number of groundbreaking hires that have occurred. In September 2020, Tori Penso became the first female head referee in an MLS game. Three women became executives at clubs: Shari Ballard (CEO, Minnesota United FC), Danita Johnson (president of business operations, D.C. United) and Ishwara Glassman Chrein (president, Chicago Fire FC). D.C. United also named Lucy Rushton general manager and head of technical recruiting and analysis, making her the first female GM since Lynne Meterparel was GM with San Jose in 1999-2000. Georgia O'Donoghue was promoted to vice president of business operations for Atlanta United. St. Louis City SC, the new expansion team, is owned by Carolyn Kindle Betz. She is the first majority female owner in MLS history. The addition of these women in their team front offices augurs well for the future.

Like so many sports fans, I have been deeply troubled by the fact the women of the NWSL have encountered serious issues of sexual harassment allegations against some head coaches within the NWSL. Because of courageous acts taken by the NWSL players on shedding light on these allegations, the MLS players stood in solidarity. It was inspirational to see men on MLS teams with sister clubs in the NWSL support and advocate for the rights and safety of their female counterparts. Those teams include of the Portland Timbers, Orlando City SC and Chicago Fire SC. They want women to know that they have an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams with respect and dignity.

"The importance of an organizational culture that embraces diversity cannot be overstated," Delise S. O'Meally, CEO of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, told me. "This culture, which emanates from its leadership, helps to create an environment that is safe and welcoming to all, an environment that eschews violence, harassment and abuse, one that stands on principles of equity, fairness and inclusion, ideals to which we all aspire, not just in sport but also in life."

O'Meally's point serves to reminds us of these ideals as our country continues to experience a racial reckoning that began with the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and continues with the murder trial of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery.

I believe MLS commissioner Don Garber and MLS President JoAnn Neale embrace the importance of diversity and inclusion, and that they are committed to making the league as successful in those areas as they have been in engineering the expansion of the league from 20 teams in 2015 to 26 teams in the 2020 season and with another four confirmed expansion teams set to join by 2023.

After noting its improvements in racial and gender hiring in this report card, I look forward to what MLS will look like in 2022 as it moves to look more like America itself.

Alayshia Green and Devon Miller made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick directs the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. He 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.