As the NFL continues to fight explosive claims of racial discrimination against Black coaches, a similar legal battle recently launched on another big front in American sports – pro soccer teams, including some that are owned by the same people in charge of the NFL.
Ricky Hill, a Black former pro soccer coach and former English pro soccer player, recently sued Major League Soccer, the United Soccer Leagues and various clubs, including Atlanta United FC and Charlotte FC, both of which share common ownership with NFL teams in Atlanta and Charlotte. Hill’s lawsuit accuses them of racial discrimination, saying the clubs hired white or other non-Black candidates who were "objectively less qualified" than Hill after he applied for the same jobs.
Hill wants the U.S. pro soccer community to know "that Blacks continue to be largely and disproportionately absent from leadership roles," his attorney, Steve Shebar, said.
Filed in federal court in Chicago, Hill’s lawsuit against MLS in many ways mirrors that of Black former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who sued the NFL for related reasons in February. Both lawsuits accuse the top American pro leagues in their sports of failing to produce meaningful progress in hiring Black coaches despite diversity hiring initiatives implemented by each league in the past 20 years.
Both leagues also have considerable common ownership – and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Hill and others seeking change. Of the 28 teams in the MLS, seven are majority-owned and run by NFL team owners, all white, not including Seattle Seahawks owner Jody Allen, who partly owns Seattle Sounders FC.
Besides Atlanta and Charlotte, the others are FC Dallas (Kansas City Chiefs), the Colorado Rapids (Los Angeles Rams), Orlando City SC (Minnesota Vikings), the Columbus Crew (Cleveland Browns) and the New England Revolution (New England Patriots).
Three of the families that own both MLS and NFL teams also preside over franchises that have never had a non-interim Black head coach in either league.
"You have owners that are also part of a league (NFL) where it’s clear that they’re not following that policy or it’s not being effective, and we’re now also dealing with the same owners in our league," said New England Revolution goalkeeper Earl Edwards, who is president of Black Players for Change, an organization of MLS players and coaches fighting racial injustice.
"It’s just an interesting take or approach in terms of trusting that they’ll operate in good faith in our league when it’s clear there’s a struggle to do so in another league that they’re also a stakeholder in," said Edwards, who is not involved in Hill’s lawsuit.
MLS has had only eight non-interim Black head coaches in its 27-year history and currently has three in a 28-team league where about 25% of its players in recent years have been Black. In the second-division USL Championship league, Hill’s lawsuit notes there is only one Black head coach among 27 teams. Similarly, in the NFL, the league's player population in recent years has been about 60-70% Black, but there are only six head coaches of color, including three Black coaches.
The MLS clubs in Atlanta and Charlotte didn’t provide a response when asked about Hill’s claims. The MLS noted it has the highest percentage of coaches of color in U.S. men's pro sports – 43% minorities, mostly Hispanic or Latino, according to a report last year by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
But the league acknowledged last year it needed to improve with Black candidates. It hired its first-ever chief diversity officer last year and last December approved a policy requiring that clubs consider at least two non-white candidates as finalists for open sporting positions, including at least one Black candidate.
The league said in a statement it takes seriously any claim of discrimination.
"We are committed to maintaining a discrimination-free workplace, and fair and inclusive practices for all candidates for employment," the MLS statement said. "Late last year, MLS was made aware of certain allegations being made by Mr. Hill. We remain confident in the appropriateness of our conduct and will defend ourselves against these claims."
The USL said USL clubs are responsible for hiring decisions "in accordance with all applicable laws" and that it is exploring additional diversity initiatives "that will create more opportunities for coaches of color."
Hill, 63, has seen the game from several vantage points over the past five decades. As a player, Hill played on England’s national team from 1982 to 1986. As a coach, he led the minor-league Tampa Bay Rowdies from 2011 to 2014 and won a championship in 2012. As a player-coach with Tampa Bay in 1992, he was named American Professional Soccer League coach of the year, as well as being selected to the first-team all-league team as a midfielder.
Off the field, Hill also has been active in this cause after facing overt racial abuse in England and then observing the hiring practices in American pro leagues in soccer and football. He even published a book about his life in soccer last year entitled "Love of the Game: The man who brought the Rooney Rule to the UK" – a reference to the NFL rule that originally required teams to interview at least one diverse candidate for head coaching vacancies.
"It is extremely disappointing to witness owners from the NFL who have also acquired MLS franchises being reluctant to conduct their hiring practices in a fair and inclusive manner," Hill said in a statement to USA TODAY Sports. "There are no excuses for any franchise that operates solely on the premise of familiarity, culture, and a known preferred network of contacts or agents to fill vacancies, whilst in general omitting racially diverse personnel from any real consideration."
His lawsuit seeks an award of damages, injunctive relief to cure the defendants’ "discriminatory" policies and practices, and a declaratory judgment that their conduct and practices violate laws. His lawsuit is not seeking class-action status, unlike Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL.
► In the case of Charlotte FC, Hill’s lawsuit states his agent, Kieren Keane, expressed interest on Hill’s behalf in Charlotte’s then-vacant head coaching position in June and July 2021. He contacted the organization’s president, sporting director and technical director and provided Hill’s resume, according to the lawsuit.
"To date, there has never been any contact or acknowledgement of Hill’s interest in employment with Charlotte," the lawsuit states.
Charlotte instead hired Miguel Angel Ramirez as the club’s inaugural head coach. Hill’s lawsuit notes Ramirez “is white, of Spanish ancestry, had no professional playing career, and only recent senior professional head coaching experience.”
Ramirez was fired in May after less than a year on the job, having gone 5-8-1 in 14 league games.
► In the case of Atlanta United FC, Hill’s lawsuit stated he expressed interest in working for the organization, including as coach of its reserve team, Atlanta United 2. The organization eventually granted him a Zoom interview for the latter position in May 2021 but didn’t hire him.
The organization instead promoted Jack Collison, who is white, from within the organization and promoted another white coach to be its academy director.
"Both of these white hires, chosen over Hill, had far less experience and success as professional soccer coaches and/or technical directors than Hill," Hill’s lawsuit states.
'Long ways to go’
Hill’s lawsuit cites a similar pattern with other pro clubs. Shebar, Hill’s attorney, noted that the previous diversity hiring policy of the MLS did not have a significant impact on the "problem of underrepresentation of Blacks in leadership roles." It was around since 2007 and since has been described as "toothless" by Edwards, goalkeeper of the Revolution. The league previously required only one diverse candidate to be interviewed for an open position.
By contrast, the new policy clarified public sanctions for teams that fail to abide by it, including up to $50,000 fines for first offenses and $100,000 after that.
Former Los Angeles Galaxy player Cobi Jones told USA TODAY Sports the new policy is a "minor step." He remains the only American-born Black head coach to serve in the MLS, but that was only for one match with the Galaxy in 2008 on an interim basis.
"I think there’s a long ways to go," Jones told USA TODAY Sports. "I think it’s about the simplicity of actually just stepping up and hiring people. I don’t think it’s always like, 'OK, we’re going to start this program. We’re going to start this process.' … Is that going to do something for everyone 15 years from now? That’s an issue. I think just giving the people a chance, sometimes learning on the job, is a way to go, because it’s been done in the past."
Asked if he thought a lawsuit would help make progress or not, Jones said, "I don’t know if 'help' is the correct word. I think it might force something."
That’s the point of Hill’s lawsuit, and of Flores’ suit against the NFL. Both had seen various league policies not working. They decided legal action was needed instead.
"Unfortunately, it remains clear that the NFL cannot police itself, which is why we look forward to continuing to push the legal process, prove all of Brian’s claims, as well as those of a class of Black executives, coaches and candidates, and force real change upon the NFL," Flores’ attorneys said in a statement Aug. 2.
In the MLS, Black Players for Change closely followed a recent test of the new diversity hiring policy. D.C. United this year fired Argentine head coach Hernan Losada, replaced him with white American interim coach Chad Ashton, then replaced him with white English coach Wayne Rooney.
A spokesman for the team told USA TODAY Sports one of the three finalists for the position filled by Rooney was a Black coach – filling the requirement of the league’s updated diversity hiring policy.
Good intentions vs. results
Wayne Rooney, 36, is not to be confused with the Rooney Rule in the NFL, named after Dan Rooney, the late owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. In his book, Hill noted that when the English Football League backed a pilot plan of the NFL Rooney Rule in 2015, the deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association highlighted how Hill brought this policy to the PFA’s attention more than a decade earlier.
In the NFL, the Rooney Rule had good intentions after being adopted in 2003 but is "not working" now, Flores’ lawsuit states. It requires teams to consider minority candidates, but it can’t force teams to do so seriously and in good faith. To make its point, Flores’ lawsuit cites examples of alleged sham interviews or token candidates being used to satisfy this requirement.
"Lawsuits come when individuals are being used to check boxes or taken advantage of," said Edwards of Black Players for Change. "They’re trying to right what was wrong. I do think that (a lawsuit) is effective to get people to genuinely act in good faith."
Edwards hadn’t known about Hill’s lawsuit until it was brought to his attention by USA TODAY Sports. When Edwards first learned of Flores’ lawsuit against the NFL, he said he called the new diversity officer of the MLS, Sola Winley, and asked whether it was time to address “holes in our policy” that could lead to similar sham interviews and token candidates.
"He encouraged me to have faith in the policy," which was updated only last December, Edwards said.
Time and data will show how well it’s working.
"Our north-star goal is to advance equity relative to the rich diversity represented across our player pool," Winley said. "We have equity as it relates to our Latino coaches and Latino player pool. The League would like to see equity as it relates to our Black player pool."
Hill didn’t want to wait.
For one, the harm that Hill has endured from the leagues' hiring practices "will not be rectified by any commitments that the MLS has made to improve its historical record of non-diverse hiring," said Shebar, his attorney. "To get beyond mere optics, Ricky believes that more needs to be done, and that the courts may need to be involved to ensure enforcement of procedures and policies that bring rapid results."
Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL and MLS: football, wealthy owners and race discrimination claims