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U.S. Soccer repealed the anthem policy, but regaining trust will be much more difficult

Photo Copyright Valerie Terranova Photography

As society has again been forced to reckon with the killing of Black women and men — such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — soccer players demanded the United States Soccer Federation repeal policy 604-1 and issue an apology. The federation has since rescinded the so-called ‘anthem protest’ policy and has apologized to the Black community and their Black players.

But is it enough? Have all facets of U.S Soccer proven they are ready to take on the inequality experienced by their Black and multicultural players, both within U.S. Soccer and out in the world?

In a word, no.

There are no parts of U.S. Soccer that have the capacity to enact the change that is needed. That being, there are no Black women on the USSF board and no Black players on the Athletes’ Council. There is a fundamental lack of inclusion in U.S. Soccer. This must change immediately! Additionally, the USSF needs to commit to anti-racism training and other actions to make the U.S. Soccer culture more inclusive.

Representation matters

U.S. Soccer’s statement about repealing the ‘anthem protest’ seemed to hit the right notes, mainly by asserting that Megan Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, or anyone else who still chooses to kneel is indeed, “protesting police brutality, and the systematic oppression of Black people and people of color in America.”

The statement continued:

“We have not done enough to listen – especially to our players – to understand and acknowledge the very real and meaningful experiences of Black and other minority communities in our country. We apologize to our players – especially our Black players – staff, fans, and all who support eradicating racism. Sports are a powerful platform for good, and we have not used our platform as effectively as we should have. We can do more on these specific issues and we will.”

U.S. Soccer goes on to promise players will be given the opportunity to decide the best way to use their platforms to, “fight all forms of racism, discrimination, and inequality.”

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Per Yael Averbuch West on The Equalizer’s Kickin’ Back Podcast, current and former Black athletes joined Athletes’ Council meetings prior to the release of the statement, but they are not standing members of the leadership group. She added that the Athletes’ Council wants to be active in holding U.S. Soccer accountable for making positive changes. This includes elevating Black voices, who are clearly missing from the decision-making table.

“We need diverse voices represented in the leadership of the organization. It’s very hard and it’s not appropriate for a group of white people to be making decisions that affect everybody,” Averbuch West told podcast host Jeff Kassouf.

The co-executive director of the NWSL Players Association is absolutely correct. But why does it always take a white, in this case, woman to amplify the message Black athletes have been consistently sharing? This implicit bias has been exposed time and time again. We as a society have a nasty habit of forgetting to practice inclusion, then reacting shocked and bewildered when our blind spots are exposed.

Policies don’t change a culture, people do

Media and organizations, including U.S. Soccer, are tripping over themselves to get a Black voice on the record in wake of the George Floyd’s murder. However, Black athletes have more to offer than their personal trauma or stories of being one of the very few melanin-rich faces on the pitch. Additionally, former footballers and other Black professionals can and should be deployed to steer the conversation from trauma to action.

An immediate, logical, and simple step next step is something Renee Hess, founder of the Black Girl Hockey Club, shares liberally with the NHL and wider hockey community:

Hire Black women.

In her infographic for authentic engagement during Black History Month, Hess writes, “A culture change includes hiring and paying people of color in any/all roles. Culture is intersectional! Social media and in-area engagement become much more authentic when the person working with the team looks like the audience you want to engage.”

Kickin’ Back with Jamia Fields

Soccer needs to pay heed to this message. If the USSF wants to have more conversations about anti-Black racism in soccer, they must have Black people and Black players at the decision-making table. Once they are there, they must play an integral role in changing the culture.

At Saturday’s U.S. Soccer Board of Directors meeting, new USSF  president Cindy Parlow Cone seemed to understand a pivot is needed. She addressed the repeal of policy 604-1 as a first step to a greater commitment to culture change.

“We will continue to engage with our players, our staff, and soccer stakeholders to help us be a positive force for change going forward,” Parlow Cone said. “This is not about short-term initiatives; this is about writing these ideals into our DNA.”

As Averbuch West said, it’s not appropriate for white people to design these plans on behalf of currently underrepresented communities. The truth is, U.S. Soccer has no credibility on these issues. Instead, the federation should look to hire advocates and/or community organizers to train players, staff, and board members on how to champion anti-racist practices in the workplace.

Organizations such as The Inclusion Playbook, Race Forward, or Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) are just a few that come to mind. If U.S. Soccer or any #BlackoutTuesday-participating organizations were serious, they would find time to facilitate critical conversations for all staff. Equal parts sharing and learning are required, with Black voices prioritized.

Are you listening?

There is a lot at stake for U.S. Soccer right now. The court of popular opinion — from fans to their player pool — does not appear to be pro-federation at the moment. The ongoing feud with the women’s national team has put a blemish on the organization and often runs counter to their women’s team programming. Look at the SheBelieves Cup, and women empowerment programming & marketing that goes along with it.

Of late, other players in the U.S. Soccer pool have also raised their voices. The Athletes’ Council reminded the federation of this very point in their statement demanding the repeal of policy 604-1. The statement read:

“While provisionally repealing the policy is a start for U.S. Soccer, there is a clear lack of trust between the Athletes and the leadership. In order for a positive relationship to exist going forward, we feel U.S. Soccer should apologize and offer an admission of wrongdoing. Then and only then do we feel a new chapter between the USSF and its athletes can begin.”

A more diverse USWNT — and a long way to go

U.S. Soccer has apologized, which is the first step. During Saturday’s board meeting, it became clear that some actions towards rebuilding trust predated both the women’s national team and Athletes’ Council calling for action. However, the feedback was concentrated on staff, with little to no indication of player engagement in the works.

During the open board of directors meeting, chief financial officer Pinky Raina reported that U.S. Soccer hosted an open video conference for all staff (including president Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO Will Wilson) on June 5 entitled, “Coffee & Conversation: Let’s Talk About Race.” Seventy percent of staff participated in the optional virtual conversation. A survey was sent to staff on June 10 as a follow-up to the coffee and conversation event.

From there, U.S. Soccer will assemble a diversity, equity, and inclusion council. Membership on that will include an advisory council selected from senior leadership, a core council of employees, and an active contributors council of employees with designated tasks. If U.S. Soccer’s staff looks anything like the board, the question of whether Black voices will be included remains. It was unclear if players would play any role in the council.

If current players on the national teams or within the grassroots system are not engaged, statements — and even the proposed council — remain hollow.

“It should be, and will be going forward, up to our players to determine how they can best use their platforms to fight all forms of racism, discrimination, and inequality. We are here for our players and are ready to support them in elevating their efforts to achieve social justice. We cannot change the past, but we can make a difference in the future. We are committed to this change effort, and we will be implementing supporting actions in the near future.”

Overall, these actions still operate within the existing structure of the U.S. Soccer Federation. That structure has not proven a fruitful environment for amplifying Black voices. U.S. Soccer needs to push further outside of its comfort zone. Additionally, any committees, councils, or other acts of good faith must be given full access to the federation’s resources and networks. These initiatives must also be provided a budget.

This is an investment, not an occasional, feel-good meeting. Systemic racism has hundreds of years and endless amounts of money as its scaffold. True change will require more than coffee and conversation.

More than words, USSF. We need more than words.

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