Lapchick: MLS can continue to push diversity

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

Today we released the 2020 Major League Soccer Racial and Gender Report Card (MLS RGRC) in the midst of a tumultuous year for the global community and, consequently, the world of sport, which simultaneously is living through the coronavirus pandemic and a racial reckoning.

Major League Soccer has experienced tremendous growth in the past five years. Going from 20 teams in 2015 to 26 teams in the 2020 season, the league has another four confirmed expansion teams that are set to join by 2023. MLS began the 2020 season with expansion through the entry of Inter Miami CF and Nashville SC to the league. However, because of COVID-19, MLS was forced to postpone the season just a few weeks after it started. MLS then launched a tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World Resort from July 8 through Aug. 11. The Portland Timbers emerged victorious from this tournament, defeating Orlando City SC in the final.

MLS had an eventful season off the field as well, reaffirming its support to players who were peacefully protesting and taking a stand against racial injustice. This summer, systemic racism and the unjust treatment of Black and brown people in America was once again brought to national consciousness after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by police officers in Louisville and Minneapolis, respectively, and the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. The deaths of these three individuals, as well as those of countless other Black and brown individuals in the United States and across the globe, led to widespread protests domestically and abroad. Mark-Anthony Kaye of LAFC and Kamal Miller of Orlando City were among MLS players who attended protests in their team's cities. All MLS teams took to social media to make statements regarding racism in this country.

The Black Players Coalition of MLS came together and, on Juneteenth -- June 19 -- announced the formation of Black Players for Change, an organization dedicated to fighting racial injustice, eliminating racism from soccer and society, and furthering the development of Black communities. The MLS and MLSPA support and encourage this organization, and the players' association has donated $75,000 toward Black Players for Change.

Black Players for Change brought this fight for racial equality into the MLS is Back Tournament. Before the opening match, every Black player in the league who attended the tournament stood surrounding the pitch with a fist in the air, as the two teams took a knee in the center circle for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It was symbolic of the amount of time then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was originally reported to have kept his knee on the back of George Floyd's neck on May 25 while Floyd repeatedly stated, "I can't breathe." Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder. In the Montreal Impact's first game, head coach Thierry Henry took a knee. MLS players continued to take a knee before each game throughout the tournament. In the absence of fans, the anthem was not played. MLS players clearly understand the platform on which they stand and how powerful their voices are in the fight for change.

MLS continued its commitment to racial equality throughout the league's time in Florida. Players and staff wore custom Black Lives Matter shirts, which MLS sold in its online store, donating all profits toward three organizations working for racial equality and social justice.

The first MLS regular-season game after the tournament was between Nashville SC and host FC Dallas. This game was played in front of a small group of fans, and the anthem was played. Players from both teams knelt, which was met with boos from some fans. This lack of empathy shows how still, in 2020, some people are willing to ignore the realities of systemic racism and police brutality.

On Aug. 26, MLS teams followed the lead of players on the Milwaukee Bucks and others in the NBA and in the WNBA in their refusal to play after the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Blake seven times in the back as Blake was opening his car door. Blake's three children were in the back seat of the car. Atlanta United and Inter Miami FC were the first, and other teams followed, shutting down play as sport once again protested police brutality.

Real Salt Lake protested, and the next day their owner, Dell Loy Hansen, in a radio interview, criticized Real players for their actions the previous night. The Athletic detailed multiple allegations that Hansen used racist language to, and in front of, team employees, prompting investigations by MLS and NWSL. Players across the NWSL and MLS took to social media demanding for Hansen to sell Real Salt Lake, the NWSL's Utah Royals FC and Real Monarchs of the USL. Pending the investigations, the team said Hansen would take a leave of absence. MLS released a statement Aug. 30 that Hansen, in conjunction with MLS, had begun the process to search for a buyer. I commend all athletes in these leagues for acting, using their platform, and risking their position in calling for the removal of Hansen.

With protests, a pandemic, a new league format for the year and two expansion teams, it is fair to say that 2020 has been an eventful season for MLS on and off the field.

To provide another insightful and factual analysis on the race and gender hiring practices within the league, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual Major League Soccer Racial and Gender Report Card. MLS continues to do well on its racial hiring grade with another high score (90.5). 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.

However, MLS had a decline in its overall gender hiring score (69.9) for the fourth consecutive year, which resulted in its lowest gender score since 2007. This type of streak is unacceptable since MLS is committed to the initiatives being put forward to promote inclusive hiring.

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, it is expected that 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.

Similarly to other professional leagues, MLS teams still are not meeting the mark set by the league office with respect to racial and gender hiring. In comparison, the MLS league office is represented by 41.6% people of color, the professional administration and senior administration categories on the teams are only 24.9% and 17.1% people of color, both declines from the previous year's report card. The league office consists of 39.3% women, but the professional administration and senior administration categories on the teams consist of 29.9% and 23.6% women, respectively.

One area where the MLS continues to outperform its professional league counterparts is representation within the coaching ranks. The MLS has an excellent representation of coaches of color (40.7%), eclipsing the 40% mark for the first time in MLS RGRC history. This is in part because of the number of assistant coaches of color (43.2%) who are being mentored and promoted into head-coaching positions.

The MLS continues to lead in providing an inclusive environment for its players by fostering the pipeline of diverse coaches that directly contributes to the diverse team environment. In 2020, 30.4% of MLS players identified as Latino. The league had close to 30% of its head coaches who were Latino. No other U.S. men's professional league comes close to this ratio of players and head coaches of color. I commend MLS for continuing to build on this and am very confident this will be the standard for years to come.

Although MLS has done a good job of diverse hiring in its coaching ranks overall, it still lags behind in the hiring of Black or African American coaches. Black players make up over 22% of the total players in MLS, whereas just 3.7% and 8.1% of head and assistant coach positions are held by Black or African American people. I encourage the league to reach an equal ratio of Black players to coaches, as it is with Latino players and coaches.

As seen year after year, MLS teams do not have the same pipeline in place for women who want to be leaders at the front-office level. The office environment within the sport has been dominated by men, which directly contributes to the lack of a gender-diverse environment in hiring, mentoring, developing and promoting women at the professional administration level. Without diversity and inclusion, businesses will miss many opportunities to grow and expand in thought. The MLS needs to place a focus on hiring and growing the talent pool of women within team front offices. This would provide not only an inclusive environment for women to grow within the sports landscape but also a variety of opinions, which is necessary for a team to achieve the highest levels of success on and off the field.

Delise S. O'Meally, CEO of the Institute for Sport & Social Justice, said, "Major League Soccer has had a significant impact on our society over the past several months, resolutely supporting players and coaches as they have courageously taken a stand against social injustice. The exploding popularity of soccer in the United States and the momentum from this movement presents a unique opportunity to advance clear and deliberate goals around gender."

Garber, the MLS commissioner, has held his position since 1999 and is the mastermind behind leading MLS forward from its troubled financial past to being the catalyst of American soccer. Garber has the ability to usher MLS into becoming one of the most popular professional men's sports leagues in the country but also make the league a leader in diversity and inclusion among the typical strong performers. Continuing to blossom and grow with the NWSL will benefit not only the presence of men's soccer in America but women's as well. This would go beyond just supporting a diverse team of players and coaches, it would give many aspiring athletic administrators the chance to lead the growth of soccer in America.

Garber, MLS president JoAnn Neale and their team at MLS have always had my respect and admiration for the diversity and inclusion initiatives they have developed. Their efforts will undoubtedly improve MLS' report card grades in the future. I hope they continue to see the power of soccer to push diversity forward within MLS as an example for the communities each team represents.

Pedro Ariza, Carter Ellis and Nicholas Mutebi 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.