U.S. Soccer seems to finally be taking diversity seriously. Will it work?

The graphic splashed across U.S. Soccer’s social media was a simple statement with white lettering on a black background: “One nation. One team. United against racism.”

At the time, Americans were reeling from the police killing of George Floyd a week earlier and reckoning with what it said about systemic racism in this country. For many companies and organizations, it became impossible not to address it, and the U.S. Soccer Federation’s statement was supposed to affirm its values.

But for Alex Ross, U.S. Soccer’s events manager and a Black woman, it fell short. What did “united against racism” really mean? How would the federation back that rhetoric up? She didn’t know because, in the urgency to get a statement out, no one at the federation had asked the organization’s Black employees for their input.

“I saw it and I was a bit taken aback that the employees inside the organization, especially those of color, weren’t asked about it when it impacted us the most,” Ross tells Yahoo Sports.

So she called Neil Buethe, the federation’s head of communications, to discuss it. They both agreed that their conversation needed to happen on a much larger scale throughout the organization. Everyone from CEO Will Wilson to board president Cindy Parlow Cone and down the organizational chart received an invitation for a Zoom call with one item on the agenda: race.

Dubbed “Coffee & Conversation” to make its subject matter more approachable, about 150 staffers joined the call in June voluntarily. Most of them listened while a handful of others spoke.

Ilyanna Gutierrez, the federation’s media and broadcast operations manager, cringes at the thought of it now, but she cried on the call as she shared her own perspective. Gutierrez's experience growing up rooting for both the Mexican and American national teams wasn’t that dissimilar from everyone else who spoke on the call.

Afterward, Gutierrez says, she received follow-up calls from president Parlow Cone, her boss Buethe, and even Earnie Stewart, the federation’s sporting director, thanking her for speaking up.

“It definitely served as a moment of reflection for the organization,” she says. “I think a lot of our colleagues had no idea what some individuals were experiencing.”

It was a conversation the federation had never allowed before. It was also one that everyone from rank-and-file employees to Parlow Cone now admits was long overdue in interviews with Yahoo Sports. The federation, they say, was finally addressing something it had ignored for years.

U.S. Soccer is finally addressing the diversity, equity and inclusion issues for which it's been criticized for years. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
U.S. Soccer is finally addressing the diversity, equity and inclusion issues for which it's been criticized for years. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

After all, one of the most unrelenting criticisms of U.S. Soccer over the years has been its lack of diversity, both within the organization itself and in the communities it’s supposed to serve. It is criticism the federation has also earned.

The staff inside of U.S. Soccer House was too white and too male for too long, despite the sport’s diverse, global appeal. So, it wasn’t a surprise when the federation’s coaching courses looked the same or when the youth national teams were mostly filled with white, affluent suburbanites.

But to hear it from Ross, who has worked at U.S. Soccer since 2013, or from Parlow Cone, who took over as board president last year, this is a new U.S. Soccer.

For the first time, they say, the federation is getting serious about making inclusion part of its culture – and that has started with admitting its own shortcomings.

“I’ve seen a difference in the last six months more than the last eight years,” Ross says.

What went wrong with U.S. Soccer's first major DEI push

The Zoom call was eye-opening, and there was a sense for many who joined that there was no going back to acting like diversity and inclusion weren’t issues the federation needed to urgently address.

“Coffee & Conversation” was a first step. But if U.S. Soccer was going to change – really change – action needed to follow.

A Slack channel was created to discuss how to be more inclusive, and employees shared resources for education. The federation also put out an internal survey to evaluate next steps.

“You don't want to do anything blindly and just base it off a few people's opinions,” Ross says. “We wanted to hear from our staff, what they were looking for and how the call impacted them.”

They created a new internal task force, the DEI Council, which would oversee all the federation’s efforts to advance diversity, equity and inclusion going forward. Ross, Gutierrez, Buethe, and Stewart are all part of it, along with 10 other U.S. Soccer House staffers.

They hired an outside firm to conduct an audit, and it was followed up with employee interviews and focus groups. The audit sought to gauge whether staffers of color had allies and mentors inside the organization, and asked employees what changes they hoped to see in the future.

Some areas of deficiency had been obvious even before the audit; federation officials knew they needed to do a better job with hiring and staff training to better account for diversity and inclusion. But according to Pinky Raina, U.S. Soccer’s chief financial officer, the audit will serve as a crucial baseline for the federation to measure how well its new efforts address shortcomings.

“It was a roadmap,” she says. “What is the current state, so that you can benchmark as you put together a DEI plan for the organization? A year from now, when you measure it, you’ll have something to benchmark against and say, ‘This is what we ended up achieving over this year with all the actions that we took.’”

Fans and critics of U.S. Soccer may be a bit skeptical of the DEI Council, though. After all, the last time U.S. Soccer created a committee to deal with diversity, it was little more than window dressing.

A committee called the Diversity Task Force was created by the federation sometime after the 1994 World Cup but, as Doug Andreassen puts it, “It was a bunch of white men saying ‘Well, what are we going to do?’” The task force had no stated objectives – it just seemed to exist for the sake of existing.

Andreassen, who is white, took over the task force in 2008, eager to revive it and turn it into a functioning committee. He thought the group could find actionable solutions for helping soccer permeate non-white, non-suburban communities that are often cast aside in the American pay-to-play system.

Those efforts resulted in a proposal the Diversity Task Force presented to U.S. Soccer in 2013, which involved bringing in established, trusted community leaders to act as liaisons to the federation’s existing scouting network. These liaisons didn’t need to be soccer experts themselves. They would help connect the federation to communities that had traditionally been ignored, such as Spanish-speaking pockets and inner cities.

U.S. Soccer never asked for the proposal, and the federation didn’t seem interested when it unexpectedly showed up.

“Did U.S. Soccer take it seriously?” Andreassen says. “No, I don’t think they did. I think they were shocked and didn’t know what to do with it.”

That proposal was ignored and U.S. Soccer eventually ended the task force by never scheduling it to meet with or present anything to the federation again.

“I had multiple calls into the CEO of U.S. Soccer, Dan Flynn, about the issue,” Andreassen says. “I never had a response at all. Nothing was ever communicated to me. We were just left on the vine to die. I became a thorn in their side, but no decision is a decision.”

The DEI Council will not become another Diversity Task Force, those within the federation say.

First, while the Diversity Task Force was comprised of outsiders and easily ignored, the DEI Council is inside U.S. Soccer House and it already has the blessing of the federation’s new leadership, which includes a CEO and board president who both only took charge in the last year.

No longer at the federation are Flynn or his right-hand man, chief commercial officer Jay Berhalter, who sources say played an outsized role in federation decisions beyond the commercial side of operations.

“If you don’t have buy-in at the top, then it kind of falls flat, so having that buy-in from Cindy [Parlow Cone] and Will [Wilson] has helped move this forward,” Ross says. “That’s exactly why it's different. These are new steps that we've never taken before.”

Second, the DEI Council has already pushed for concrete changes that are underway.

The federation will begin ramping up employee education and training specifically focused on diversity and inclusion, something it had never done before.

USSF held a “DEI Commitment Week” in September, which included hosting guest speakers and asking departments to brainstorm steps they could take to encompass diversity, equity and inclusion. The communications team, for instance, committed to elevating the voices and experiences of the federation’s Black and Latino players, which have been shared across social media.

More changes will come, based on what the external audit tells them needs to be addressed, and a more detailed plan will be shared at U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Meeting later this month.

But until these changes are rolled out and fans can start seeing a tangible difference at the federation, the skepticism may continue. Parlow Cone knows that, and she insists it’s an area where the federation can’t afford to fail anymore.

“I don't blame them for thinking that way,” she says of the federation’s doubters. “We haven't led in this area and it’s important that we do. I mean, diversity, equity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do or a nice-to-have. It’s a strategic business imperative as well.”

Don't expect overnight solutions to U.S. Soccer's DEI shortcomings

The DEI Council won’t be able to address all of U.S. Soccer’s shortcomings, though – at least not quickly.

While critics and fans have targeted the federation’s staff makeup, the biggest complaints and worries are often reserved for how U.S. Soccer develops and scouts young players in communities across the country.

If the DEI Council is going to help the federation’s mostly white, mostly upper-class membership across the country be more inclusive, it’s not yet clear how that will happen.

“It is first internal facing, and once we get our own house in order and we get DEI right, then we have the credibility to go out there and influence others,” Raina says of the DEI Council. “That’s where our role comes in: We end up exemplifying what ‘good’ looks like in DEI and using the tools that we have learned along the way, providing others that opportunity to learn from our experiences.”

The lingering question is how long it’ll take the DEI Council to complete the transformation it wants. After all, this new DEI initiative is not about creating a new checklist. The goal is to build a new culture.

What will a successful DEI council look like?

“It becomes a part of our DNA, part of our day-to-day, so you don't think about it,” Ross says. “It’s something that you do because it’s habit. You don't have to check and say, ‘Oh, did I look through the DEI lens to make sure that we were inclusive?’ It won’t happen like that because now it’s ingrained and becomes second nature.”

That will require some adjustment.

President Cindy Parlow Cone and the rest of U.S. Soccer know people are skeptical they're about to enact meaningful DEI change. They're asking for your patience. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
President Cindy Parlow Cone and the rest of U.S. Soccer know people are skeptical they're about to enact meaningful DEI change. They're asking for your patience. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

As recently as 2019, U.S. Soccer had a 59-member Youth Soccer Task Force without a single Latino on it. The “Diversity & Inclusion” sub-group on the task force was chaired by a white man, and the federation only added a Latino after being called out on the lack of Latino representation.

Since the men’s national team missed the World Cup, perhaps the biggest groundswell of fan outcry came when California native Jonathan Gonzalez opted in early 2018 to play for Mexico after a perceived lack of outreach from U.S. Soccer. Critics wondered if it signaled a bigger problem with how U.S. Soccer relates to Latino players.

Brad Rothenberg, the co-founder of Alianza de Futbol, a U.S.-based development program targeted at Latino soccer players, knew Gonzalez for years before the midfielder made his decision. Rothenberg says it didn’t surprise him because, at least in his experience, U.S. Soccer hadn’t prioritized scouting Latinos and building relationships with those players.

“The federation can’t get rid of pay-to-play and subsidize all kids – that’s bad business,” he says. “But they can afford to be more integrated in their approach to hiring. There’s a real missing link there. Unless you have a Latino coach talking to a Latino family about their future, you’ve missed an opportunity.”

Parlow Cone, who became president after those controversies, agrees that U.S. Soccer hasn’t done enough to make soccer the sport of choice for children across the country, and that needs to change.

“We have not ensured that every kid who wants to play soccer not only has the opportunity, but has a real chance at competing and succeeding,” she says. “I know that everyone who plays soccer isn't going to make it to the national team or to our professional leagues, but I know that I'm the person and leader I am today because I was lucky enough to have the means and the opportunity to play soccer. We know soccer enriches kids' lives and helps them learn many life lessons, so when kids don't see a place for them in soccer, everyone loses.”

U.S. Soccer is joining forces with the likes of the U.S. Soccer Foundation, Major League Soccer and others who have commissioned an outside study to understand why some children aren’t choosing soccer or aren’t choosing to participate in sports at all.

When the survey is finished, the data will be used to guide new strategies to reach youth who previously had been shut out, according to Parlow Cone.

“Everyone likes to point to pay-to-play, which we all know is a barrier, but it’s not the only barrier because I don't think we’re the most expensive sport,” Parlow Cone says. “So is it access? Is it facilities? Is it that they don't see themselves as a part of soccer in America? We need to take a deeper dive and, to my knowledge, there hasn't been another survey done like this.”

The federation has already implemented changes to make inroads with Spanish speakers.

Hiring is underway for a newly created bilingual position in the communications department to ramp up and oversee Spanish-language outreach. That could result in the relaunch of U.S. Soccer’s now-defunct Spanish social media accounts, which had been shut down in 2019, but ultimately that decision will belong to the new hire, who will be responsible for working with Spanish media outlets.

Last year, U.S. Soccer launched coaching courses in Spanish in an effort to eliminate the language barrier in coaching education.

In other words, changes are indeed happening at U.S. Soccer, but they will take time to yield results. For now, those inside the federation are asking for patience.

“From the top down, we’re just listening to our employees and finding out where we need to make change,” Parlow Cone says. “We had a lot of reports about the toxic environment at Soccer House and it’s digging into that and saying, OK, as new leadership, let's think about this in a new way. How do we change this?

“Like everything else, change isn’t going to happen overnight. We’re making strides and moving in the right direction. We’re looking at things differently.”

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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