US Soccer’s slow reaction to a delegate’s views on slavery was troubling | USA

The US Soccer Federation is not what it thinks it is.

The federation was queued up to give itself a pat on the back Saturday after its Annual General Meeting, where it shared slick videos about new efforts to promote diversity and inclusion. The highlight was going to be the repeal of a controversial policy that forced US players to stand during the national anthem.

Instead, after a racist rant from a delegate during the anthem policy vote, what has crystallized is how much work US Soccer must do to become the forward-thinking organization its leaders think it is. The delegate, Seth Jahn, has already been stripped of his position on the council, but deeper and more urgent questions remain for US Soccer, which hasn’t done enough to quell criticisms of creating an exclusionary culture.

The remarks from Jahn, as inaccurate and inflammatory as they were, don’t deserve additional oxygen, but in a nutshell: the topic was whether athletes should be allowed to kneel during the national anthem, and Jahn went on a mostly unrelated seven-minute tirade that ended by arguing black slavery in the United States wasn’t actually that big of a deal. His speech was almost entirely devoted to denying oppression against black Americans even exists.

In other words, it was racist. The problem is the leaders at US Soccer didn’t seem to recognize that and failed to respond accordingly.

In a press conference after the meeting finished, board president Cindy Parlow Cone and federation CEO Will Wilson said they hadn’t heard all of Jahn’s remarks because of technical issues. When a reporter noted that Jahn’s speech included many white supremacist talking points, Parlow Cone reiterated she hadn’t heard it but added: “It is important to listen to different sides, whether it’s comfortable or not, but there’s absolutely no place for racist comments.”

It was hardly the condemnation needed in that moment.

To be fair, Parlow Cone and Wilson probably didn’t hear all of Jahn’s comments. US Soccer held its AGM remotely for the first time due to Covid, and even during the press conference, Parlow Cone and Wilson had trouble hearing one another.

But the press conference came almost two hours after the meeting ended, plenty of time for someone – anyone within US Soccer – to brief them. Somehow, no one felt compelled to flag the racist speech so it could be condemned properly. (As of Monday night, neither Parlow Cone nor Wilson have issued reactions after hearing the full speech.)

Several more hours later, US Soccer issued a written statement that called the meeting “successful” but said “there is a never a place for racist comments in any form,” echoing Parlow Cone’s tepid response and failing to see the flaw in calling an event that included a racist controversy “successful.”

US Soccer is quick to note that, as a membership organization, it doesn’t get to choose who joins its community – and its members are overwhelmingly white men, some who may share Jahn’s beliefs. The members, who come from state soccer associations or other groups, like adult amateurs and deaf athletes, elect their own representatives to attend the AGM.

But Jahn wasn’t just a random delegate. He was well-known to those within the federation, having been employed to oversee security for several national teams over the years, including for the USWNT at the World Cup in France. Although he stopped working for US Soccer in 2019, he was close enough to some players on the men’s national team that they hung out outside of work.

His views didn’t seem to be a secret while he worked for US Soccer either, with Twitter activity going back years that reveals racist, threatening, transphobic and Islamophobic leanings. Whether or not he talked about his beliefs on the job, it’s hard to believe at least some of US Soccer’s staff or players hadn’t been aware of them and tolerated them.

After US Soccer weakly condemned his remarks, Jahn issued a non-apology Sunday where he said he had received “overwhelmingly (sic) support” from “a number of people within the federation.” A federation spokesman declined comment on Monday, but this ought to be the federation’s biggest concern. If there are others in US Soccer with the same alienating views, then any efforts toward DEI – diversity, equity and inclusion – will be doomed to fail.

There seems to be a belief among some US Soccer brass that Jahn’s racist views aren’t widely shared by others at the federation. But it’s incumbent on the federation to find out rather than assume, and then take steps to root racism out. After all, as Americans are increasingly learning, not being racist isn’t enough on its own as long as racism still exists – only being anti-racist can ensure ideas like the ones Jahn shared don’t fester.

Jahn insists he didn’t say anything racist, an argument that will convince some because his speech may not be what everyone imagines racist language to be. Rather, his views are more insidious. Shortly after George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests, Jahn shared a photo of himself in a room full of guns and joked about waiting for antifa, which he signed off: “Stay dangerous, stay strapped, my friends.” Christian Pulisic, the USMNT’s best player and a man who will most likely be one of the faces of the team when the US co-hosts the World Cup in 2026, clicked “like” on it.

We already know US Soccer leaders like Parlow Cone don’t share Jahn’s views. She led the charge to repeal the anthem policy, which Jahn opposed in his speech, and she has explicitly said she did so because it was wrong to silence peaceful protests against racial oppression. Parlow Cone comes from a military family and has said she will stand for the anthem, but she has also expressed regret for failing to understand the struggles of her black and brown colleagues.

Since Wilson and Parlow Cone took over last year, they have been behind US Soccer’s new DEI initiative – undoubtedly a positive step. The initiative launched last year after George Floyd’s death, and is set to include new measures like diversity training for employees. Those on the federation’s DEI council say the goal is a complete transformation of US Soccer’s culture.

But clearly, they aren’t even close yet. How can the federation address its longstanding diversity problems at the grassroots when it can’t even address them in-house?

Federation leaders have said the right things about wanting to address shortcomings, but those words ring hollow after this latest mess. If US Soccer – which has been overwhelmingly white for decades despite the sport’s diversity – thought it could congratulate itself on evolving because it officially repealed the anthem policy, it got a harsh reality check.

As Megan Rapinoe explained to the Guardian before the anthem policy vote, there’s no end to the work US Soccer has ahead.

“There is no finish line,” Rapinoe said. “There’s no, ‘We’ve done it and now we’re past it.’ This is something that all of us could never do enough to be done with it. So, it’s just the constant understanding and recognizing where you’ve done wrong, where you’ve done harm, acknowledging and apologizing for that, and then working toward a better future that takes everybody into account.”

As a first step to heal, the federation has scheduled an all-staff call on Tuesday to discuss what happened. The leaders at US Soccer will probably again say the right things about wanting to learn and do better, and they will probably mean it, too. But to date, those intentions – as sincere and heartfelt as they’ve been – just haven’t been enough.

If US Soccer is going to be the organization those inside believe it really is, then serious action must follow – and it must keep following.

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