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Major League Soccer scoring goals on race and gender

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Today the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released the 2017 Major League Soccer Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC). MLS earned a B+ for racial hiring practices and a C+ for gender hiring practices.

With MLS doing quite well with racial hiring practices, especially in the league office, and with the global popularity of soccer, MLS players and teams can play a positive role in creating more unity in this country and globally.

MLS had a combined grade of a B with 83.5 points, decreasing by 1.2 percentage points from 84.7 in 2016 when the MLS RGRC overall grade was a B+.

This overall decrease was largely a result of a new grading scale that better represented America's changing demographics. In fact, the MLS performed extremely well in many of the categories that measure its racial hiring practices. For example, the MLS earned an A+ for the league office and players, an A- for assistant coaches, a B+ for team professional administration, and a B for head coaches and general managers. In one of the largest increases in the report card history, the ranks of assistant coaches of color nearly doubled from 13.6 percent in 2016 to 25.9 percent in 2017. My hope is that this will lead to an increase in the diversity of head coaches, general managers, owners, team presidents and vice presidents in the coming years. Senior-level positions on teams are lagging way behind the league office.

For gender hiring practices, the MLS received a B+ for league office employees, a C+ for team professional administration and a D+ for senior team administration. MLS also scored poorly for race in senior team administration with a D. For improvements to occur, I believe it is necessary for the league office to take an active role in ensuring that more diverse individuals are hired for senior team administration positions. MLS has historically had the worst record in professional sport for hiring people of color as team vice presidents. While it is still weak in this position, vice presidents who are people of color in the 2017 season increased from a woeful 4.0 percent in 2016 to 8.4 percent in 2017. During the 2017 season, women held 22.1 percent of all vice president positions, a significant increase from 16.7 percent in 2016. Nonetheless, both are weak spots for MLS teams even after the increases.

Obviously, having few women and people of color in these decision-making positions on teams indicates a lack of their influence in critical team direction.

As with all the other professional leagues, the MLS league office is the leader for the sport when it comes to hiring practices. Therefore, as the league expands, I am confident that the league office is in a good position to influence its clubs on diverse hiring practices and can advance racial and gender diversity throughout the sport.

MLS most clearly demonstrates its commitment to diverse and inclusive hiring through its diversity initiatives. One of the strategies the league uses to increase opportunities for women and people of color is its internship program. For the 2017 internship program, MLS recruited women or people of color into eight of its 14 available positions. In early 2017, MLS also conducted sexual harassment and diversity awareness training for all 22 clubs. It earned an A+ for its outstanding diversity initiatives for the ninth consecutive season.

The MLS continues to grow. In 2017 the league added two teams, Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC. As announced in October 2015, a new team, the Los Angeles Football Club was formed and will take the field in 2018. Ultimately, the league plans to expand to 28 teams. Being the only professional sports league in the United States with definite expansion in its future, MLS has the opportunity to encourage its new clubs to be more inclusive and diverse in their hiring practices.

At 46.2 percent, MLS has the highest percentage of international players among all the leagues covered in the racial and gender report cards.

Outside of the United States and Canada, the sport remains plagued by acts of hate by fans and a handful of players. Anti-Semitism continues to expose its ugly head in soccer stadiums. Polish soccer fans burned effigies that were dressed in traditional Orthodox Jewish attire calling for violence against Jewish people. After covering a match, soccer commentator David Guetta was harassed by approximately 20 Italian men chanting at him "Guetta, a train to Mauthausen is waiting for you," referring to the Austrian concentration camp. Johnny Daniels, head of the Holocaust research group From the Depths, expressed the need for action against this behavior: "This is a shameful example of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism in sports, where it truly has no place."

Soccer is loved worldwide and is affectionately known as "the beautiful game," yet incidents such as those described above are far from beautiful. We as fans must do our part to prevent these disheartening actions. Moreover, I call on domestic and international leaders in soccer to serve as an example, to the fans and everyone associated with the sport, of how to be a leader in social justice and inclusion. According to FIFA.com, approximately 3.2 billion people watched the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. There are an estimated 4 billion soccer fans globally, about half the world's population.

Beyond the massive audience the sport reaches, soccer is an amazing sport in the passion and enthusiasm it inspires from its fans. Imagine how powerful it would be if young soccer fans and players grew up not only chanting in support of their favorite teams but knowing the sport that they love stands for unity, diversity and acceptance. Considering the number of fans and players of this global sport and how strongly they feel about it, this could be a revolutionary act regarding sports' ability to positively affect society and make true social change. Although we might be from different countries across the world, we are all cut from the same human fabric. In the wake of NFL player activism spurred by Colin Kaepernick, positive actions by soccer players across the globe would add even more power to the legacy.

Todd Currie and Destini Orr made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.