The MLS Racial and Gender Report Card

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Soccer is known as the world's sport. It is played in more countries and by more people than any other sport. It is highlighted by the quadrennial FIFA Men's and Women's World Cup tournaments that feature the most talented national teams and athletes. France defeated Croatia in the historic 2018 men's World Cup final. That was followed by the U.S. defeating the Netherlands to win the 2019 women's World Cup for the fourth time. The 2019 U.S. Women's National Team is arguably the most talented women's soccer team of all time. More importantly, they were among the most vocal athletes, igniting a public discussion about gender equity in sports and other areas of daily life.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual Major League Soccer (MLS) Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC) on Wednesday. MLS improved its racial hiring grade with its highest score (93.9) in the past 15 years. There was an increase of people of color in the key positions of head coach, president/CEO and general manager. There were also increases of people of color in team senior administration positions and team professional positions. Commissioner Don Garber's MLS league office once again performed strongly, with an A+ in racial hiring and a B in gender hiring. The MLS league office has the highest percentage of people of color among all men's professional sports leagues.

However, MLS had a decline in its overall gender hiring score (72.0) for the third consecutive year, which resulted in its lowest score since 2007.

MLS earned an A for racial hiring, a C for gender hiring and an overall grade of a B.

The report card asks, "Are we playing fair when it comes to sports? Does everyone, regardless of race or gender, have a chance to score a goal or operate the business of professional soccer?" The answer is "yes" for racial hiring practices and "not yet" for gender hiring practices. With soccer being the world's sport, we would naturally think MLS would be able to field one of the most diverse teams on the pitch, in the front offices and at the league office. This was not the case for gender hiring practices. MLS is not alone. The gender hiring practices of MLB, the NBA and the NFL also continue to lag behind their racial hiring practices. The 2019 U.S. Women's National Team underlined that we continue to see a wide gap in gender diversity and inclusion in soccer.

As with the other leagues, MLS teams fall far behind the league office with respect to racial and gender hiring. Although the MLS league office is represented by 40.9% people of color, the professional administration and senior administration categories on the teams are only 27.7% and 17.2% people of color, respectively. The league office consists of 38% women, but the professional administration and senior administration categories on the teams consist of 32.2% and 22.6% women, respectively.

The report card showed that MLS has an excellent representation of coaches of color (37.5%). This is in part because of the number of assistant coaches of color (46.4%) who are being mentored and promoted into head-coaching positions. The percentage of players of color is 61.7%.

In 2019, 33.4% of MLS players reported as being Latino. MLS, in turn, has 25.0% of its head coaches reported as being Latino. No other U.S. men's professional league can come close to this ratio of players and head coaches of color. In 2019, the largest racial category for players in the NFL and the NBA was African American at 58.9% and 74.8%, but only 9.4% and 26.7% of the head coaches were African American. In 2018, the largest racial category for players in MLB was Latino at 29.5%, but only 10% of the head coaches 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 a diverse environment.

Unfortunately, MLS teams do not have the same pipeline in place for women who want to be leaders at the team level. Too many teams have a male-dominated office environment, which might not have fully embraced a diverse environment by hiring, mentoring, developing and promoting women at the professional administration level. Diversity and inclusion is a business imperative. The addition of women in a team front office would not only provide an inclusive environment for women to succeed but would also provide the diverse thoughts and opinions that are necessary for a team to achieve the highest levels of success on and off the field.

Historically, men's soccer has had a jump on women's soccer that is undoubtedly part of the reason women are still playing catch-up.

The first men's collegiate soccer championship was in 1959, and women's opportunities started to grow only in the 1980s, after the passage of Title IX.

The first men's professional soccer league, the North American Soccer League (NASL), existed from 1968 to 1985 and was followed by Major League Soccer in 1996. Professional women's soccer leagues did not exist until 1995. The National Women's Soccer League began in 2012, on the heels of the U.S. Women's National Team's success in the 2011 World Cup.

The first official men's World Cup was in 1930. The women's World Cup was not an official event until 1991. Men's soccer teams have been competing in the Olympics since 1900. The first time a women's soccer team played in the Olympics was 1996.

These dramatically disparate periods of unequal development have added to the challenge for women to be considered equals in sports and in society. If a woman could not watch another woman compete, then what inspiration did she have to make the effort to achieve a soccer-related dream? Because of segregation throughout society, it became exponentially more difficult for a woman of color to find a role model and believe that she could have the same opportunities as white female counterparts, much less white male counterparts.

I have been troubled by the fact that most women's leagues and tournaments are prefaced with "Women's" (such as Women's World Cup, Women's Final Four and Women's National Basketball Association), while men's sports leagues and tournaments are not prefaced with "Men's." I am willing to bet that women take pride in the world knowing who is actually playing. They want young women to know that they have an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams.

Delise S. O'Meally, executive director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, said, "Having women in leadership roles does more than impact the immediate environment. It does more than provide role models for aspiring young women and girls. It helps to cement in society's collective consciousness the valuable role each gender plays and the benefits that accrue to all."

Alex Morgan, the 2018 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year, the 2019 CONCACAF Female Player of the Year, captain of the U.S. Women's National Team and 2019 World Cup champion, was recently named to Time magazine's most influential people of 2019 list. This distinction was based not solely on her talent on the field but also on her steadfast advocacy off it. Morgan is a consummate pro, committed to improving the sport and providing more opportunities for women and girls to play. She recognizes that she is a role model for young women who aspire to have the same opportunity to chase their dreams, and she wants the sport to develop more role models.

Garber, the MLS commissioner since 1999, is credited with leading MLS from its financially troubled infancy of only 10 teams to being one of today's most popular professional leagues that will have 29 teams in 2022. In fact, MLS has become so popular in the U.S. that the 2018 MLS Cup game had an attendance of 73,019 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta while the 2019 MLS Cup game set an attendance record at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, with more than 69,000 fans.

Garber is in a unique position to not only make MLS one of the most popular professional men's sports leagues in the country but also make the league a national leader in diversity and inclusion. Advocating alongside Alex Morgan and the U.S. Women's National Team would go beyond filling the stands. It would go beyond filling the offices with a diverse and inclusive workforce. It would go beyond fielding a diverse team of players and coaches. It would provide generations of young women, people of color and members of other underrepresented demographic groups inspiration to play soccer, be a leader in the front office or both. I challenge Garber and MLS to stand alongside Morgan and loudly echo her voice of advocacy for gender equity.

Garber, MLS president JoAnn Neale and their team at MLS have my respect and admiration for the diversity and inclusion initiatives they have developed. MLS WORKS is an incredible platform that the league has developed to address social issues and improve the communities that continue to embrace the league. The leaders' efforts will undoubtedly improve MLS' report card grades, but I hope they seek to use the power of sport to make MLS a leader in social change throughout the country.

David Zimmerman 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 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.