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Race, Ron Jans and MLS’s Diversity Problem

Recently in hot water, Jans highlights the need for better education within MLS.

White Rapper, Ron Jans
(Photo: Albert Cesare / The Enquirer)

The recent racial unpleasantness at FC Cincinnati — former head coach Ron Jans either mistakenly used a racial slur while rapping along to a song or created a racially hostile work environment in the FC Cincy locker room, depending on whose version of events you choose to believe — has highlighted a potential problem inherent in any Major League Soccer club.

A multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual workspace, especially one as fraught with emotions, stress and tension as your typical professional sports team clubhouse, can lead to misunderstandings, resentments and outright hostility that are exacerbated by those differences and by power differentials between players and coaches. MLS clubs, including Columbus Crew SC, would do well to promote integration and cultural understanding to try to avoid both such egregious episodes as the Jans affair and more minor ones that never make the national news but nevertheless could contribute to a less-than-welcoming environment for non-white or non-American players and fans.

The Crew’s roster features flags from a multiplicity of nations and players speak a variety of different languages but there haven’t been any indications that racial or cultural tensions have negatively affected the Crew locker room. MLS, for its part, positions itself as relatively progressive on matters of race and diversity (see the “Say No to Racism”, and “Soccer for All” campaigns, for instance). And compared to the ongoing epidemic of racist incidents in European soccer, MLS looks like a veritable racial utopia.

The league’s reputation, however, isn’t exactly sterling. In 2018 Los Angeles Football Club’s Adama Diomande accused a Portland Timbers opponent of calling him a racial slur during a U.S. Open Cup match. After the game Diomande posted on Instagram:

“They will say sorry to me after the game and please let it go, but If I don’t say anything racism will just continue to grow. No matter which country, color, religion or which language your speaking we all are human being and we should respect each other no matter what! #saynotoracism”

Even as Jans’ defenders have suggested that at worst the coach was guilty of cultural ignorance and not knowing the horrible history associated with the word in question in the U.S., Diomande’s justified outrage argues that such ignorance is not a reasonable defense.

Nor is Columbus immune to the scourge of racism. In 2008 a Crew “fan” was recorded directing a racial slur at the New England Revolution player, Kheli Dube. And the San Jose EarthquakesAlan Gordon earned a three-match suspension for calling the Timbers Will Johnson a homophobic slur.

More recently, the league has courted controversy with its ham-handed efforts to ban anti-fascist banners, although that ban has been officially rescinded with this year’s new fan code of conduct. Moreover, New York City FC has a well-documented Nazi problem.

MLS’s lack of diverse coaching/front office staff is partly to blame for such problems. It’s notoriously difficult for black coaches to get a chance at the highest levels in MLS. The Crew’s hiring last year of Ezra Hendrickson is a step in the right direction towards diversity in the coaching ranks but the onus shouldn’t be on individual coaches or players to teach others — clubs should have programs in place to educate players and staff. That’s not to say that representation doesn’t matter. The more diverse a club’s front office and coaching staff, the less likely it would be to deal with racial problems or other forms of bigotry. It’s likely that Jans wouldn’t have behaved in the manner he did if Cincinnati had black-skinned folks in positions of power.

All of which is to say that the league and individual clubs need to do a better job of educating their entire workforce — from players and coaches to ticket sellers and front office staff — on cultural and racial sensitivity and history in general. Whether this takes the form of regular workshops and educational programs on such issues for all team staff, providing Spanish language and history education for non-Spanish speakers and English language and American history lessons for non-English speakers, players informally sharing their cuisines with their teammates and staff (jollof rice at the new Crew stadium, please), or simply ensuring that clubs’ staffs look and sound as diverse as their rosters, it’s clear that MLS needs to do better.