US Soccer’s Game Changers United program is committed to improving on past inclusivity initiatives

When Cobi Jones, the most capped player in the history of the United States Men’s National Team, got into soccer as a kid, he fit the common stereotype of the sport in America – a kid of suburb of an affluent Los Angeles neighborhood – except for one thing.

“Without a doubt, there were many times when I was the only black kid on the team,” Jones told ESPN on Tuesday. “I would play against other teams and there would be no one who looked like me, and certainly no one who coached. I never had or saw a black coach until I got to college and that Clive Charles is in Portland.”

“It was eye-opening,” Jones added. “I look back on that and it revealed to me the problems of the sport.”

Soccer in America has long been criticized as a sport for affluent white children and progress since Jones’ playing days has been relatively slow. Jones retired from football in 2007, but today’s national team players, like Crystal Dunn, have the same experiences of being the only person of color on their teams growing up.

So when Cindy Parlow Cone, president of US Soccer, asked Jones if he’d like to serve on a new advisory board for DEIB – which stands for “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging” – Jones didn’t hesitate. The board includes Jones, former U.S. Women’s National Team forward Abby Wambach and former LA Galaxy defenseman Robbie Rogers, as well as non-athletes with experience in DEIB work. It was officially announced on Wednesday, but it has been meeting virtually for months and its members have chosen its name: Game Changers United.

The independent and outward-looking group is the next step in efforts launched by the United States Soccer Federation in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, to be more inclusive. It started inside US Soccer House (the company’s headquarters is in Chicago) when employees raised concerns internally about the federation’s lack of recognition of race-related issues and to ethnicity and resulted in the creation of a DEI council made up of Soccer House staff. (The ‘B’ for ‘belonging’ was added later based on staff feedback; it’s one thing to include everyone, but quite another to make sure they feel welcome.)

“We think about all aspects of DEIB, whether it’s within American football or outward to our members,” Parlow Cone said. “How can we help our members along this journey? How can we help referees, coaches, anyone in the football landscape in this country to break down the barriers that exist? Obviously that’s going to be a long-term thing and we felt we needed real experts in this area, as well as athletes who have been in the game for a long time to help guide our efforts.”

For Jones, the focus will be on bringing football to communities where the sport has no roots – and that in turn will mean bringing more types of people into the game, even beyond the game. “The 22 players on the pitch are just a small part of that,” Jones said. “The coaching staff, the training staff, the front office people. There are opportunities for various groups of people to be a part of this game in a myriad of ways.”

Game Changers United will help the federation identify the steps the group should take and then make recommendations. But beyond that, US Soccer doesn’t have a set agenda, Parlow Cone said, which means they won’t feel limited by what they can and can’t do.

“I think it’s really important that they have a clean slate so they can operate and guide American football where we need to go,” she told ESPN. “If they think benchmarks are important to us, then we’ll include benchmarks. If they don’t think it’s as important as other initiatives they want to move forward, then we’ll go that way.”

The open nature of Game Changers United’s results may be designed to hold the group accountable, but for American football’s fiercest critics, it may raise skepticism. After all, US Soccer has had other diversity task forces come and go, with little to show for it. The last outside diversity task force fizzled out years ago when the federation stopped taking calls from the group’s leader, after he offered US Soccer a batch of recommendations no one had asked for. This was before Parlow Cone or current CEO Will Wilson were in charge, but the federation’s missteps over the years – including having a 59-member youth football task force without a single Latino involved – fostered some cynicism from the outside.

However, Jones, who ran for vice-chairman of the US Soccer board in part to increase board diversity and lost, said that so far US Soccer has shown with genuine enthusiasm.

“Everything I see right now, we have the support of US Soccer,” he said. “There’s been positive feedback from US Soccer and a commitment to ask what’s going on – they’ve been very excited to see the ideas we come up with.”

“We don’t want to just tick a box,” Jones added. “These are actionable items. It’s extremely important to me that there is some teeth and that we go out and do something.”

Parlow Cone added that there are direct links between Game Changers United and the federation to ensure it will not fade away like past efforts. US Soccer board member Patti Hart will oversee Game Changers United, while members of US Soccer’s internal DEIB board will also serve as liaisons for the outside group. If the group functions as everyone hopes, its work will never really be done, because issues like discrimination, racism and exclusion never go away; they just change. When US Soccer set up its internal staff council for DEIB, they swore it would transform the culture of the federation – no small feat.

So it’s no surprise that this is all still a work in progress. The federation has taken outside action, including its One Nation initiative, which offered free coaching classes in underserved communities. Internally, a staff survey is planned for February, Parlow Cone said, and while she is confident the federation has made progress in some areas, others may need more attention. Meanwhile, Game Changers United is expected to soon get guidance from a study the federation has commissioned with the US Soccer Foundation and other stakeholders to better understand the barriers preventing children from taking up football – whether they are demographics or related to something else.

Parlow Cone said she has seen the preliminary results and they are expected to be released next month. By March, she said, the federation wants to start acting on the study’s findings. The action is exactly what Jones expects from the new board.

“It’s extremely important to present the recommendations to US Soccer and see that steps are being taken in the right direction,” he said. “I don’t want to be a part of something just to say I was a part of it.”

He added: “We’ll have to see the proof in the pudding.”