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US Soccer Annual General Meeting shows DEI has long way to go

The federation must be better prepared to confront racism from both without and within in the future.

Updated 10:55 PM ET: Added statements from other members of the USSF Athlete Council responding to Jahn’s racist remarks and a statement from US Soccer.

Updated 2/28 10 PM ET: Added statement from Athlete Council removing Jahn.

US Soccer held their annual National Council meeting at the 2021 Annual General Meeting today. Amongst the resolutions and bylaws and budget approvals, there was a deeply awful period when they opened the floor for comments from members about the repeal of Policy 604-1, which required US players to stand during the American national anthem and was put in place as a direct response to Megan Rapinoe kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. The US Soccer board of directors voted to repeal the policy last June, saying “It was become clear that this policy was wrong and detracted from the important message of Black Lives Matter.”

One member who commented at great length was newly-elected Athletes Council member Seth Jahn, who played for the US 7-a-side Paralympic team. Jahn spent seven minutes espousing deeply racist, white supremacist rhetoric that claimed everything from there being no data substantiating police brutality against Black people to arguments attempting to minimize the monstrosity of Black slavery. There was a cursory attempt made to curb Jahn’s statement, telling him he had 30 more seconds, at which point he spoke for nearly another two minutes.

These comments came on the heels of the AGM opening with President Cindy Parlow Cone explaining that the federation would be doing more Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work to ensure that soccer would become more accessible to non-white players. Cone made a short clarifying remark at the conclusion of Jahn’s racist remarks, stating, “Let me be clear, this is not about disrespecting the flag or about disrespecting the military. This is about the athletes’ and our staff right to peacefully protest racial inequalities and police brutality. So I urge our membership to please support our staff and our athletes on this policy.”

Later, in a post-AGM press conference with USSF President Cone, CEO Will Wilson, and newly-elected Vice President Bill Taylor, several members of the media asked about their stance on Jahn’s statements. Some of these questions and their answers have been transcribed in their entirety below in order to provide the full context of the answers given:

Q (Paul Tenorio): Cindy, I know you just mentioned the idea of diversity of thought and hearing both sides. Obviously someone on the Athletes Council today, Seth Jahn, had an extended statement, I guess you could call it where I thought was beyond bordering on - had some racist ideas in it, some historically inaccurate facts and numbers that went on for some time. Was there any thought to stopping that statement earlier? And is there anything that could have been done differently in that situation regarding what he was saying in the moment during that debate?

Cindy Parlow Cone: Look, Seth has done a lot for our country and for our federation. And like I said before, just like the players have a right to peacefully protest, Seth has the right to voice his opinions. I’ll be honest with you, the speaker that it was on my side was really hard to hear. And so I couldn’t actually hear everything that he was saying, but from what I did hear, I think [USSF general counsel] Greg Fike did as well as he could have in handling the situation and allowing Seth to speak and then asked him to close it up within 30 seconds, which I didn’t time it, but it seemed about within that time. It seemed like it was within that timeframe.

Q (Meg Linehan): Very much in that same thread, just in terms of I think there is some reaction in terms of both players and fans within this community of having heard those words. And I know that you immediately made a statement after Seth Jahn spoke, which I think probably sums up your approach to this. But in terms of all of the work that’s happening with DEI at the Federation, is there a message that you’d maybe like to send to people who see that statement? Just, you know, out of the context of the rest of what happened today, where you can have that diversity of thought, but because of the context of that speech, they might not feel welcome. Is there a message to those people in particular?

Cindy Parlow Cone: You know, I think my statements on this, and I’ve been pretty clear, I support the athletes’ right to kneel if that’s what they choose to do. And obviously, Seth’s comments - I’ve seen some of them after the fact. He’s obviously free to have those thoughts for himself. And we have to continue to embrace DEI, we can’t just embrace it when it’s comfortable or aligns with what we believe in or what we think. But this just goes to show with Seth’s comments, as well as the vote not being 100%, that we have a lot of work to continue to do in this area, and that we all, including myself, need to continue to educate ourselves on this topic, and be open to hearing differing opinions. Because that’s what DEI is all about. And we have to, if we’re going to truly embrace DEI, it can’t just be when you agree or when you’re comfortable with it. Right? We have to hear all sides.

Q (Steph Yang): This is a question primarily for president Cone, although feel free to all jump in. And I apologize if this question is a little scattered, so please feel free to ask me for clarification. Cindy, earlier, you talked about that situation with Seth Jahn being handled about as well as it could be. But in fact, he was allowed to use many, many racist talking points, points taken directly from white supremacist rhetoric, despite the speaker not personally identifying as white himself. And then to follow up a little bit on Meg’s question you talked about, you know, we have to hear all sides in our DEI efforts. But it does seem that comprehensive DEI training here might have provided a template for understanding when it’s time to de-platform racist rhetoric and simply not allow it as being equivalent to other points of debate. So when you were answering that question earlier, and talking about having to hear all sides, does that mean, something like this, obviously racist rhetoric, is going to be allowed in future discussion or debates and US Soccer’s internal DEI efforts? Or if you would like could you please take this time to clarify what you meant about we have to hear all sides.

Cindy Parlow Cone: Thank you for the question. And like I said before, I haven’t - I didn’t hear the comments that he made, it was very garbled on my speaker on my side. So I haven’t seen the purely racist comments. I heard some comments about that, he’d been a police officer, and that kind of stuff. But obviously, there’s no place for racist comments. And so that occurred. I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware of it. What I meant about hearing all sides on an issue - and it’s important for us to listen to different sides, whether it’s comfortable listening to them or not - but there’s absolutely no place for racist comments.

Will Wilson: Yeah, just to support Cindy on that, and we were standing next to each other. And we both were struggling to hear all that was being said. Chalk that up to a COVID environment and doing this virtually, which certainly has been a challenge in and of itself. But just to support what she’s saying, obviously, outwardly racist comments and that sort of rhetoric are not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about constructive dialogue and constructive conversation and constructive differing of opinions. And that’s what we mean when we talk about DEI.

Update: Other players in the Athlete Council tweeted the following statement in response to Jahn’s racist speech:

Additionally, US Soccer released the following statement:

There are several failures here of the tenets of DEI that Cone and other leadership at USSF are attempting to embed in the culture. First among them is that it seems no one with authority at the AGM made any indication to the technical staff that they should cut off Jahn, even after he was given a time warning, nor did Fike intervene early enough. This was not a courteous exchange of ideas or a measured debate over policy; it was dangerous and inflammatory anti-Black rhetoric, and there was no reason to continue giving it a platform or to patiently wait it out.

That Jahn has a spot of some organizational importance on the Athletes’ Council is unacceptable, and US Soccer needs to at least make an unequivocal statement that what he said is wrong and that these beliefs will not be tolerated within the federation. The bylaws may not provide a strong mechanism for his removal, although AC members may be removed under USSF’s “Prohibited Conduct Policy” that includes “bullying, hazing, harassment, [and] emotional misconduct.” One would hope an extended racist speech at the federation’s most important meeting of the year could, perhaps, trigger some part of that clause for at least a review.

A truly embedded culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion would have included training to recognize that hateful speech like this creates an unsafe and hostile environment for Black athletes and staff, and that it’s not enough to just “not be racist,” but the organization must be actively anti-racist in its work. The federation cannot drag its heels a moment longer in working to become a truly equitable and inclusive organization for all its members. Whether that means increasing DEI training not just within the federation but throughout its membership; more resources for the recruiting, training, and support of non-white players, referees, and coaches; or white members stepping aside to make space for historically disenfranchised Black players to sit at the table in decision-making positions, anti-racist work cannot wait another minute.

Update: The Athlete Council voted to remove Seth Jahn, effectively immediately, citing the Prohibited Conduct Policy, which prohibits harassment based upon a person’s protected status, including race.