Recently, I wrote a column for this website about the virtues signaled by so-called “Woke Capitalism,” and I stand by what I wrote. It is better for companies – especially, like sports teams, those companies with constant public visibility – to be seen supporting good causes, justice, progress, and equity. But there does come a time where these same companies need to put their money where their mouth (mouths?) is (are?). So, it seemed appropriate to see how MLS is doing on this front.

I looked around at some of MLS’s messaging, and I found two recent prominent moments where MLS made dramatic announcements promising specific steps toward progress: (1) MLS's October 2020 announcement of certain steps to combat racism and increase opportunity; and (2) MLS's updates to its Diversity Hiring Policy in December 2021.  So, let’s call this a “heat check” on what, if any, progress MLS has made in these areas. After all, given the time that has passed, it seems like there has been plenty of time for MLS to have some specific metrics of progress to point to. 

First, in its release, MLS stated that it was forming a Diversity Committee that included members of the MLS Board of Governors and the MLS Commissioner, creating a Civic Engagement Initiative, developing a Supplier Diversity Program, and partnering with certain outside organizations dedicated to social justice.

But what have we really seen?  Other than this?

A lawsuit filed last year directly questions the league’s commitment to diversity.  In that lawsuit, captioned Karine Travieso v. Major League Soccer, L.L.C., a former MLS employee alleged that she was laid off after years of pointing out areas where MLS could improve its diversity and inclusion, particularly when it comes to its Black employees.  She argued that her layoff – which she alleges came during a busy time for MLS and, therefore, was not due to lack of work – was pretext for retaliation for raising these issues to her superiors.

The obvious disclaimer here is that anyone can file a lawsuit against anyone at any time for any reason.  This is, after all, the United States of America, where all you have to do is file a lawsuit, appeal twice, and suddenly the EPA can’t set clean air standards anymore and child labor is not only legal, it’s mandatory.

But the claims brought by Ms. Travieso – a former vice president in the Integrated Media Solutions group at MLS – at least raise some eyebrows.  

After George Floyd’s murder in 2020, a lot of companies felt compelled to make public statements condemning racism.  MLS was no different.  According to Ms. Travieso’s complaint, MLS held internal meetings to discuss racism and bias as relating to its staff, but (as alleged in the complaint) the apparent interest in participating in diversity efforts quickly waned.  Ms. Travieso alleged that she gave a speech at an internal MLS town hall on Juneteenth in 2020, and although she received several compliments about her speech, she claimed that she started to get the cold shoulder from her supervisor, was cut out of meetings, and had responsibilities taken away, culminating in her layoff.

The problems alleged by Ms. Travieso predate the George Floyd murder.  For example, she alleged that Gary Stevenson (still the Deputy Commissioner of MLS) and JoAnn Neale (the President and Chief Administrative Officer of MLS) had a history of making racially insensitive comments surrounding MLS events, such as worrying about the kinds of crowds attracted by bringing a rap artist.  She also alleged that a group of Black employees at MLS, known as “Pitch Black,” submitted a request to be recognized by MLS in 2019, but were ignored.

Now, maybe there was nothing to it.  The case settled (as most do) and was closed last March.  On the other hand, it would not be unheard of for a company to say nice things about diversity and then drop it once no one is paying attention anymore.  And it would certainly not be unusual for successful executives to have, say, problematic views about race and deflect attention away from those views, rather than engage in any introspection.  But there is no way for the public to know whether there was anything to it or not, because the media never really reported on the lawsuit when it was filed or when it was settled, and no one has followed up since.  The only media evidence I can find about the lawsuit at all comes from TMZ.

Second, on December 7, 2021, MLS announced an updated Diversity Hiring Policy.  Under this policy, the finalist pool for an open sporting position must include two or more non-white candidates, one of whom must be Black or African-American.  (This policy was announced less than a month after the Chicago Fire hired Ezra Hendrickson to be their head coach, who become one of three Black head coaches in MLS.)

After his hiring, Hendrickson told the Chicago Sun-Times that his interview with Chicago was his first for a head coaching job in his career.  (There were some reports indicating that Hendrickson was considered for the FC Cincinnati position, but I could not find any information regarding whether he interviewed or not.)  He is 50 years old, and he was an assistant coach in various capacities within MLS organizations from 2009 to 2021, with stops at Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy, and Columbus Crew.  He won three MLS Cups as a player at three different teams (Galaxy, DC United, and Columbus) and was an assistant at Columbus when it won MLS Cup in 2020.  

The FC’s first-year coach, Pat Noonan, is 41 years old.  He retired as a player in 2012, and he had his first assistant coaching job in MLS in 2013.  He got an interview for the New England Revolution head coaching job in 2017 (he lost out to Brad Friedel).

Obviously, Noonan is showing that he’s more than capable of being an MLS coach.  But, it would be fair to ask why it took Hendrickson 12 years to get an interview for a head coaching position, but Noonan just four.  The point isn’t whether Noonan himself is qualified to be an MLS head coach; the question is whether equally qualified Black candidates are not being offered the same opportunity.

These questions are compounded by the activity surrounding two 2022 MLS head coaching vacancies.  Recently, DC United announced that it was hiring Wayne Rooney as its new head coach.  There has been no reporting regarding how this hire complied with the MLS Diversity Hiring Policy.  Similarly, Sam Stejskal and Jeff Rueter in The Athletic recently reported that San Jose Earthquakes have interviewed Landon Donovan, John Hackworth, Preki, Ian Russell, and Ante Razov for their open coaching position, with interim coach Alex Covelo in consideration.  (More recently, Tom Bogert reported that the Earthquakes are expected to hire Luchi Gonzalez.)  As far as I can tell, not a single one of these candidates is Black.

And there is another lawsuit shining a spotlight on MLS’s practices.  In Ricky Hll v. AMB Sports & Entertainment, LLC, et al., the plaintiff Ricky Hill alleges that he has been discriminated against regarding opportunities in MLS because he is a Black man.  (Recently, a law professor tweeted about this case.  I swear I was writing this article already – I’m just a terrible, terrible procrastinator.)  Hill is a former English soccer player who played in the English top flight for a number of years, primarily for Luton Town, where he won the League Cup over Arsenal in the 1987-88 season.  He made his way to the United States, and eventually found himself coaching the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL, winning the 2012 NASL Championship.  (Winning hardware in the second division has been sufficient to win MLS jobs before.  Giovanni Savarese and Marc Dos Santos both got MLS head coaching jobs after winning championships in the NASL, James O’Connor was hired to coach Orlando City after winning USL Cup, and Alan Koch was hired as FC’s first coach in MLS after winning the USL Supporters’ Shield, just to name a few.)

Mr. Hill says that he applied for positions with Atlanta United, Inter Miami, Las Vegas Lights, Memphis 901, OKC Energy, and Charlotte FC, and that he was passed over each time for non-Black candidates who were less qualified (in his estimation).

Again, there is no way to know the specific facts here without talking to the people involved and making determinations about their relative credibility.  But, as members of the public, we have three data points here: (1) DC United hired Wayne Rooney without identifying any minority candidates who were interviewed; (2) the San Jose Earthquakes job has been linked to seven different candidates, none of whom are Black; and (3) there is ongoing litigation against MLS citing allegedly discriminatory hiring practices in coaching positions.  

There might be a good explanation for all of this, but it would be nice if the league was asked to provide it.  It is very, very easy to put out a press release, or a tweet, about new MLS initiatives or promises, but I hope that we all are expecting more than that.