Why this matters
As soccer grows across the United States, current and former athletes in the Anti Racist Soccer Club are crafting a foundation centered on investment, education and transparency around institutional racism -- and demanding their teams and leagues follow suit.
Diversity and inclusion initiatives have popped up throughout sport organizations at virtually every level. Yet, despite the widespread adoption of these initiatives, actual progress has been slow. Take the recent one-year suspension and $10 million fine levied by the National Basketball Association on Robert Sarver, managing partner of the Phoenix Suns. In a report conducted by a third-party law firm, Sarver was found to have made inappropriate and offensive sexual comments toward his employees, used racial slurs around staff, and maintained a “historically ineffective” human resources department.
As Shalise Manza Young recently wrote for this publication, “despite an increase in discussion, media attention, scholarship, and data around racial equity in sports leadership, things haven’t changed much.” The relatively fixed position that wealthy White men have historically held as “leaders” of sport organizations raises questions about the limits of popular diversity programs – especially as owners and top executives like Sarver continue to create organizational cultures rooted in sexism, racism, classism, ableism, and more.
Coupling these misdeeds by sports leaders with recent notable instances of athlete activism, many are looking at sport organizations today and asking what’s next for diversity in sport. By now we have seen the business, moral, and even scientific cases for diversity supported by academics and corporate leaders alike, but still, progress has been relatively static. So, how do we take what we have and move forward with diversity? Can we move forward with diversity?
While these questions are important for looking into the next chapter of diversity, it’s equally as important to look back at the origin of today’s diversity and inclusion programs.
Origins of Diversity Initiatives
In the 1950s and 1960s, the widespread anti-racist movement across the United States sought to dismantle the legal system of Jim Crow segregation. Led by Black Americans, this movement for social, political, and economic justice emphasized anti-Black racism (e.g., police brutality, educational discrimination, employment discrimination, housing discrimination, and healthcare discrimination). Among several legislative changes during this time, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was perhaps most impactful, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Shortly after the passing of the Act, Executive Order 11246 was signed into effect by President Lyndon B. Johnson requiring government contractors to engage in affirmative action.
Together, these directives made it significantly more difficult for organizations to explicitly engage in discriminatory acts while also making it costly for organizations who failed to ensure fair employment practices.
By the 1970s and 1980s, there was a growing awareness within the private sector that organizations were ill-equipped to manage a diverse workforce. In response to this deficiency, companies began offering training programs aimed at “valuing diversity.” Following the creation of these programs, rhetoric widely shifted in the 1990s to emphasize the business case for diversity (i.e., diversity’s financial bottom-line implications). In other words, to capitalize on a diversifying labor force, organizations became increasingly fixated on its financial impacts.
Although most research on diversity in the two decades since then endeavored to “prove” or legitimate diversity as a business asset and facilitate the adoption of diversity-related initiatives, there are substantial limitations to this approach, especially as it pertains to race. This is not to say that race is more or less important than a variety of “dimensions'' of diversity; rather, given the origins of today’s diversity initiatives in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, I center these politics here to show how “diversity” has been moved away from its radical beginnings.
Although originally emerging out of the anti-racist movement in the U.S., today’s diversity programs often “deracialize” diversity or, said differently, minimize the importance of race and racism as an intersectional component of diversity. Relatedly, these initiatives are often hindered by what can be called the essentialization of the various dimensions of diversity. That is, diversity becomes framed as a list of differences to be considered among a larger list of equally important differences.
A popular outcome of this process is that it enables managers and executives to take a “box-checking” approach to diversity. In general, many diversity programs tend to downplay the structural dynamics of oppression in favor of individualized approaches, a far cry from the institutional focus of the 1960s.
Lastly, the concept of interest convergence – the idea that civil rights breakthroughs only happen when the interests of Black and White folks are aligned – forces us to grapple with several questions about the nature of the business case for diversity, such as: who is managing diversity; who is being managed; and for what purposes is diversity being managed. In the NFL, the Rooney Rule is an example of this interest convergence, allowing predominantly White male owners and executives to capitalize off faux racial progress while failing to usher in substantive change.
These and other shortcomings of diversity programs have led to many calls to move past the business case for diversity, especially in sport. For example, in rhetorically posing the question, “Do sport organizations really care about Black lives?”
Kwame Agyemang and Mackenzie Rector stated it plainly: “Forget the business case… The sport industry should not just pursue diversity when it is commercially convenient.”
This widespread push to move away from the business case for diversity and instead focus on authentic action and change has inspired many athletes, practitioners, and community stakeholders to creatively engage with diversity in ways that challenge oppressive systems. One example of an organization that has taken a step in this direction is Anti Racist Soccer Club.
Anti Racist Soccer Club
Anti Racist Soccer Club (ARSC) is a nonprofit coalition of athletes, activists, and practitioners organized to fight systemic racism in and through American soccer. Emerging as an organic response to rampant racism in the U.S., ARSC was founded by a collection of athlete-activists and practitioners. Namely, founding leaders include Bilal Saeed (co-owner of A.F.C. Ann Arbor), Kaiya McCullough (chairwoman of ARSC, retired professional soccer player, and current Harvard Law student), Brandon Miller (retired professional soccer player and co-founder of the United Soccer League’s Black Players Alliance), and Hugh Roberts (co-founder of the USL Black Players Alliance and current player for Monterey Bay F.C.).
Although McCullough serves as the chairwoman for the organization, ARSC embraces a non-hierarchical model whereby input is valued from each of the leading members and decisions are made collectively. This is embodied both in the core values of the organization and in the way the broader coalition operates, through which ARSC helps clubs develop action plans to further embed anti-racist education, policies, and practices in their respective organizations.
ARSC’s 10-point plan is undoubtedly the centerpiece for their coalition. Developed by ARSC’s leadership team with input from a variety of external stakeholders such as the Sporting Justice Collective, the objective of the 10-point plan is to develop “actionable guidelines for clubs to implement anti-racist initiatives that fit specific to their club.” The guidelines that were developed are pointed, yet intentionally broad, allowing for member organizations to adopt the plan and make it their own to reflect the needs of the community in which they respectively operate. These points are represented below:
- Invest resources into our communities to further diversity, equity, and inclusion
- Increase representation to reflect the community and sport in which we operate
- Educate our community about racism and anti-racist behaviors
- Support the protest or removal of the National Anthem
- Provide a platform for all players to speak openly and freely about social injustices and inequality
- Expand access to the sport and work towards equitable play
- Commit to actively working to end police brutality
- Pledge to increase support for Black-owned and Black-led organizations
- Partner with organizations that will support anti-racist efforts
- Make matches more accessible and more inviting to marginalized communities
Each point developed explicitly responds to the needs of athletes, practitioners, and other community stakeholders that have been major areas of concern throughout the most recent wave of athlete activism, and in response to unjust racialized conditions more broadly. Although focused on racism, it should again be noted that the issues represented in the 10-point plan are inherently intersectional and overlap with complex systems of oppression such as classism, sexism, and more. It is through this actionable plan that the coalition itself is formed.
As voluntary members of the coalition, each club represents an autonomous professional or semi-professional soccer organization dedicated to fighting systemic racism at the societal level through localized action and engagement. This communal focus allows members to engage with anti-racist action in ways that are appropriate for and respectful to local communities and their differing but interconnected histories of race and racism.
Here are four clubs doing tangible work in partial fulfillment of their responsibilities under the 10-point plan:
A.F.C Ann Arbor
AFCAA is a USL League Two franchise located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Led by one of the co-founders of ARSC, Bilal Saeed, AFCAA has been a leading organization within the coalition. In partial fulfillment of the first and third points from the 10-point plan, AFCAA is partnered with CLR Academy, a youth program focused on the intersection between sport, race, and education. Specifically, CLR Academy is founded on the values of community wellness, developing leadership skills, and revolutionary thinking. Weekly programming includes readings from Khalid and Khalilah's ABC's of Black History and interactive presentations from Dr. Khalid el-Hakim, founder and curator of the Black History 101 Mobile Museum.
Oakland Roots S.C.
Roots is a USL Championship franchise located in Oakland, California. Particularly known for their anti-racist bend and community work, Roots was the first soccer team to join Common Goal, creator of the Anti-Racist Project. According to Roots’ commitment to this partnership, the team donates “1% of all player and staff salaries and 1% of all ticket revenue to Common Goal” in fulfillment of this partnership. Additionally, the club is intentional in acknowledging and working to support native Ohlone peoples who have inhabited the Bay Area long before European colonization. Work in this area includes but is not limited to regular land acknowledgements and the establishing of a relationship between Oakland Roots and the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an “urban Indigenous women-led land trust based in the San Francisco Bay Area that facilitates the return of Indigenous land to Indigenous people.”
Vermont Green F.C.
Vermont Green is a newly formed USL League Two franchise based out of Burlington, Vermont. One of the aspects that makes its membership in the coalition unique is its core emphasis on the intersection between anti-racism and environmental justice. In partial fulfillment of the sixth point, Vermont Green is partnered with King Street Center with the goal of expanding access to soccer in the Burlington, Vermont area. This two-way relationship includes players visiting King Street to help teach youth about the sport, interacting with them while learning new skills, and blending the mission of social justice and climate justice. Additionally, Vermont Green has hosted these children at practice, while also inviting them and King Street leadership to a match where the club was able to highlight the partnership with King Street, its impact on the club, and the impact on the community center.
Lansing Common F.C.
Lansing Common is a USL League Two franchise located in Lansing, Michigan. In partial fulfillment of the ninth point, Lansing Common partners with and helps provide financial support for organizations such as Summerplace United, St. Vincent Catholic Charities, and the Refugee Development Center, which seeks to “cultivate a welcoming, thriving community that collaborates with refugees and newcomers through education, engagement, and support.” This partnership with the Refugee Development Center highlights and responds to the unique needs of refugee communities in the region.
Working with member organizations individually, ARSC looks to hold clubs accountable to their 10-point plans. In essence, the idea is to be more than a slogan (a popular response from sport organizations post-2020), and to instead center genuine, anti-racist action. This is an area where I, personally, have been fortunate enough to work with ARSC leadership to provide a critical, scholarly gaze. This includes meetings with ARSC leadership, coalition members, and conducting in-depth case studies. Together, these aspects form the coalition that is ARSC.
Moving Beyond the Business Case for Diversity
Due to a variety of factors, many individuals, communities, and sporting organizations are now looking to move beyond the business case for diversity. In the soccer landscape, ARSC has established itself as one of the organizations pushing for more tangible change. While ARSC is not a finite solution in and of itself, it does seem to be a promising departure from traditional diversity and inclusion initiatives focused on “bottom-line” implications. Building antiracism into the core of an organization, authentically engaging with antiracist action, and building a broader coalition for change enables ARSC and its members to affect change at the communal level. In theory, the mobilization of this coalition renders a challenge to systemic racism at-large while creating newer, more sustainable ways of relating.
Surely, many recognize the need for more radical change in general (i.e., beyond ARSC’s scope of impact). But perhaps the fight can – and must – be fought at both levels. Sport organizations should authentically move to dismantle inequitable structures. At the same time, athletes, practitioners, and other stakeholders should continue to organize in and beyond sport to call for more radical change. In doing so, there’s potential to build solidarity across communities and movements for justice enabling a shift that would allow sport organizations to reimagine the very nature of diversity, equity, inclusion, and ultimately, justice.
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