How MLS is trying to eradicate player-on-player racial abuse

How Black Players For Change is impacting U.S. Soccer & MLS (3:07)

Black Players For Change president Earl Edwards Jr. analyses the progress made by the organisation within U.S. Soccer and MLS. (3:07)

On Nov. 7, MLS announced it was suspending Philadelphia Union defender Kai Wagner for three games after an investigation confirmed that he had directed a racial slur at New England Revolution forward Bobby Wood during a match Oct. 28. The suspension marked the third time this season -- and fourth in the past 15 months -- that the league had investigated an allegation of player-on-player racial abuse.

There are more documented cases of player-on-player racial abuse in North American soccer than in other parts of the global game's ecosystem. While instances of racial slurs in the sport have dominated headlines around the world, they have mostly involved fans abusing players.

ESPN spoke with several people familiar with MLS' anti-racism initiatives, including league executives, players, the players' union and advocacy groups. These voices discussed why racism has manifested itself in a different form in MLS than in leagues elsewhere, and detailed the efforts to stamp it out of the game.

MLS is one of the most diverse leagues in the world, with more than 80 countries represented among its player pool. In the three incidents this year, those accused of racial abuse came from three different countries in Europe.

"[MLS] is a lot more international of a league," said Brenda Elsey, an associate professor of history at Hofstra University, who is also the lead development officer in the Americas for the Fare Network, an organization that seeks to combat inequality and bigotry in soccer. "So I think it's bringing together a lot of different discriminatory frameworks into the same place."

That doesn't fully explain why this has happened in the past 15 months. The Premier League and Italy's Serie A, for example, both have more than 60 countries represented, yet outwardly, neither league has reported publicly player-on-player abuse to the same extent MLS has.

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Nashville SC and United States international defender Shaq Moore spent the first seven years of his professional career playing in Spain with a variety of second- and third-tier sides. He said the racism he encountered was either from fans or out in public, but he hadn't experienced any such incidents with opposition players either domestically or abroad.

"I had a few occasions in Spain on the field, off the field where someone says something that is not the best thing," Moore told ESPN. "On the field, you go to take a throw-in and [fans] say something in there really quickly, or on the subway, [security will] just take you by the hand and they will ask you questions for no reason, stuff like that."

One theory to explain the unique situation in MLS is that players are more willing to report such instances of on-field abuse than in leagues elsewhere. "We believe the uptick is most likely due to the fact that players are no longer willing to silently allow these things to happen to them, or their teammates, and we applaud them for standing up and calling out abusive behavior," said MLS Players Association (MLSPA) spokesperson Elizabeth Harley.

Pressure has also been applied to MLS by groups such as Black Players for Change (BPC), which in the wake of George Floyd's murder in May 2020 has been advocating for MLS' Black players.

"I don't think there's necessarily an increase in incidents so much as there's an increase in caring about the incidents, which can be credited to the BPC," Elsey said. "I think the BPC has been successful in creating more sensitivity around this issue as a workplace issue. So I think the league seems more interested in enforcing the anti-discrimination policy, which is a good thing."

At the time of publication, MLS had not provided the number of reports of player-on-player racial abuse it had received or investigated. The MLSPA declined to comment on the number of incidents.

Progress, and the degree to which players feel comfortable reporting instances of abuse, has been slow.

In April, San Jose Earthquakes forward Jeremy Ebobisse was subjected to a racial slur by New York Red Bulls forward Dante Vanzeir, who received a six-match ban. In speaking about the incident after the match, Ebobisse suggested that the players were put in charge of determining whether Vanzeir would remain on the pitch. "The system is not robust enough," Ebobisse said.

That was the case in June 2021 when Ebobisse's then-Portland Timbers teammate, Diego Chará, alleged he was racially abused by a Minnesota United player, later identified as Franco Fragapane. The league found the allegation to be made in good faith, but it could not corroborate or refute the allegation and issued no sanctions.

In October 2022, then-Inter Miami CF defender Aimé Mabika said that then-D.C. United forward Taxiarchis Fountas had directed a racial slur at Mabika's then-Miami teammate Damion Lowe. The league, declining to formally sanction Fountas, said that it found the testimony of Mabika "credible" while it didn't find Fountas' testimony to be credible.

The league's process in handling allegations of racial abuse has begun to change.

"I think that is an evolution in the way that these matters are being reported and analyzed," Ebobisse told ESPN when asked about the incident with Chará. "I felt as if that was the first time that there was an understanding of the magnitude of what was going on.

"When a player like Diego Chará says something, anything, it's taken with a strong degree of seriousness because of what he's done for the league and just his character and how impeccable it is, and that has continued to be the trend."

The Chará incident proved to be the catalyst for MLS executive vice president and chief engagement and advancement officer Sola Winley to recognize that the league needed to do more on behalf of players.

"Having to call Diego, and listen to the pain that the incident caused him, was a very difficult conversation," Winley told ESPN. "To be in a dynamic where a human being who has contributed so much to this league feels like they weren't heard, resonated with me. That was the impetus for me to better understand what the history of these incidents had been in MLS, and to try to identify an opportunity and a pathway for us to have a more holistic view of how we wanted to manage these going forward with the goal to bring more balance and bring more equity to the entire process."

Winley added that he thinks there has been a material, ongoing shift in how MLS is handling these cases. The credibility of the respective testimony is considered to a degree that, according to Winley, "broadens the aperture of which we examine these policies and these infractions through." The league has been more effective in meting out discipline as well. In both the Vanzeir and Wagner cases, the perpetrators admitted wrongdoing, resulting in six- and three-game suspensions, respectively.

Allen Hopkins, the executive director of BPC, feels that players now have more confidence in how the league handles instances of racial abuse. "There are now processes and opportunities in place to let the system work on [players'] behalf," he said, including a more robust process for investigating and adjudicating.

When asked if he agreed that there had been a shift, Ebobisse said "a little bit," although he added that he didn't have a sufficient baseline of knowledge to make a definitive statement. He did feel that in the past, MLS has been "pretty reactive" to instances of on-field racial abuse as opposed to proactive.

There are other factors at play when it comes to the frequency of incidents this year. Hopkins feels that there needs to be considerably more outreach to international players when it comes to informing them of cultural dos and don'ts. He said, "The reality is that until we start really connecting with those players in a real intercultural way, where they understand that this is the American experience," there are going to be incidents.

"In my eyes, accountability doesn't look like kicking someone out of the league or anything like that. It's more having that person acknowledge that they crossed the line, and going through a restorative process that hopefully leads to them no longer doing so." San Jose Earthquakes forward Jeremy Ebobisse on MLS' restorative justice process for players who violate the league's anti-discrimination policy.

To that end, MLS has been working in conjunction with advocacy group BPC and the MLSPA to develop a training program that will be rolled out before the 2024 season. Every individual on the technical side of a team -- players, coaches, support staff -- will be required to take part. At present, such training is folded into other curriculums, like the league's rookie symposium. Given that players come into the league at different points in the season, with the transfer window open between January and April and again from July to August, there are ways for players to miss out on education. It's a point that the MLSPA noted.

"We are hopeful that MLS is realizing that their onboarding process and overall human resource programs must do more to increase cultural awareness within and among the player pool," the MLSPA's Harley said.

According to Winley, the training will be focused on "intercultural learning, education and understanding." He added that around 50 people throughout the soccer ecosystem -- including league executives, current and former players, chief soccer officers, team administrators, player care and wellness representatives, and external mental health clinicians -- have been consulted about the training.

"We have to do a better job understanding the cultures in which our athletes are coming from, the dynamics in which they play, how permissive some of those cultures are or not," Winley said. "And then also be very clear about what our expectations are. Not just about what they can't do and shouldn't be doing, but what they could and should be doing to contribute to a culture that's rooted in dignity and respect."

The incident between Vanzeir and Ebobisse marked a dividing line in terms of how MLS handles these cases. For the first time, the league provided what it calls a "restorative justice process" that Vanzeir had to go through in order to return to the field. The process involves meetings between the accuser and accused to acknowledge what took place, as well as educational opportunities for the accused. That is an approach backed by both BPC and the MLSPA.

Hopkins noted that often there is a reflexive desire on the part of fans to ban perpetrators from the league. He felt that approach would result in a missed opportunity.

"I'm like, 'Well, how are we really going to grow?'" he said. "I'm not trying to be too Pollyanna about it or too naive, but it goes against what I believe soccer is. Soccer is, you're always recalibrating and refining your skills to a point where you have a skill set that works, but we don't apply that in terms of this space. I'm like, 'You can learn from this and you can still be better for the rest of your life, not while you're just here in the league.'"

The Red Bulls turned down an ESPN request to interview Vanzeir, but Ebobisse said he appreciated how the program benefited both sides. Cancel culture wasn't the objective, Ebobisse said; growth was. He complimented Vanzeir on his attitude, noting that the Red Bulls forward didn't just show up for the sake of showing up but was engaged in the program. Both players discussed what took place, and at the program's completion, Ebobisse said he felt "comfortable" that Vanzeir had done everything that the league had asked at the time.

"We were ready to welcome him back into the league as long as his teammates were, which they were," Ebobisse said. "In my eyes, accountability doesn't look like kicking someone out of the league or anything like that. It's more having that person acknowledge that they crossed the line, and going through a restorative process that hopefully leads to them no longer doing so. It's also becoming an advocate for players who might not be as aware of the cultural significance and [programs] that are available if they cross those lines."

There is also a push to do more to hold players accountable in the moment. Neither Vanzeir nor Wagner was removed from the field. The same was true of the first incident involving Fountas. Minnesota defender Zarek Valentin feels that is something that needs to change.

"Look at domestic violence, let's look at steroids, let's look at issues of abuse. There's a very strict zero tolerance, right?" Valentin said. "If someone does PEDs or does something like that, it's not one of these situations where it's like, 'Oh, hey, let's let them finish this out' or 'We'll see what happens.' No, it's like you're immediately removed from team activities and placed on an administrative leave. And I think if we were to set a certain standard, obviously if it's a player that's being accused of said [racial] accusation, I think removing the player immediately from the game has to be a nonnegotiable."

The protocol for on-field instances of player-on-player discriminatory behavior was refined following the Vanzeir incident. MLS executive vice president of sporting product and competition Nelson Rodriguez said the protocol wasn't applied in the Wagner incident because word of the incident didn't reach the referee until after the match.

The protocol is as follows. If the referee hears a player direct discriminatory abuse or behavior at another player, the perpetrator will be ejected.

How MLS is 'showing progress' in response to racism

Black Players For Change president Earl Edwards Jr. speaks about Dante Vanzeir's punishment for using a racial slur.

If the referee doesn't hear the discriminatory abuse or behavior that is reported, the referee consults with the officiating crew, as well as VAR so they can start reviewing audio or video. The fourth official then informs the league's match director so they can begin preparation with the league's crisis management team, including stadium operations, security and communications. The match official then gives time to the person who is aggrieved, apart from everyone else on the field, to express what they experienced and heard. The center match official is encouraged to have someone else with them to corroborate the testimony and take notes.

After that initial intake, the hope is that all available audio and video will have been reviewed. If there is corroboration, the league's expectation is that the referee will act and send off the perpetrator. If that's not the case, the referee has to speak to the alleged offender, who has to be told, "This is what's being reported to us." The referee will call both captains over and inform them that there will be a delay in the match while the situation is reviewed, and speak to both head coaches.

Either team then has the option to go into the locker room for a cooling-off period of up to 30 minutes, although it isn't a hard deadline and can be extended. That period is also used to see if there is any corroboration. Rodriguez said in reviewing the Vanzeir incident, it was discovered that players from both teams were impacted.

"In learning that, that's what made us say, 'Hey, no one should have to live that out in front of 20,000, 25,000 fans,'" Rodriguez said. "And that's what led us to say ... let's let people get out of the charged environment, into a safe place. A locker room generally is regarded as a safe place. Allow them to have their emotions, allow them to communicate if they wish, with their staff, with their coaches, with their teammates."

The crisis management team of MLS at that time is assembled, usually through a conference call or Zoom, to discuss the situation. The protocol also allows the league office to be in touch with the match official directly and a representative of each of the two participating clubs, either the chief soccer officer or their designee, or the chief business officer or their designee, not necessarily the head coach. If the head coach wants to be involved, that would be up to coach.

During the 30-minute cooling-off period, the member of the league office crisis management team will check in with both teams to gauge how the players are feeling. Once the grace period has reached its 30 minutes, or if the league hasn't extended it, the referee approaches both head coaches and the match director. There is an element of feel to this to see how the teams are coping with the situation. Then, either the match will be resumed or the match will be abandoned, and the incident will be investigated and reviewed after the fact.

Rodriguez added that at present, doing what Valentin suggested and immediately removing alleged perpetrators from the field isn't an option, as it falls outside the referee's authority. There are other options, however.

"We have heard from coaches who have indicated that they of their own volition may remove the player," he said. "For what it's worth, some coaches told me they'd removed the alleged player even if they didn't have a substitution available or a substitution opportunity. But it's not automatic, and the referees cannot force that substitution."

"I think MLS has a chance to be a North Star in terms of how to deal with [racial] accusations," Valentin said.

Players also talk, regardless of whether they are in MLS. Word will get around as to how serious the league is about dealing with on-field, player-on-player racist abuse. Better communications through the league's education program will likely make an impression.

"I think they have been spot-on in tackling the incidents," Moore said. "All the suspensions and fines were warranted in the effort to make sure racism stays out of our game. MLS has shown that they take it very seriously, and this can only help with the cause.

"If that drives players away, then they shouldn't be in any league, let alone ours."

Winley said the goal "is to eradicate player-on-player racial incidents from the game and for MLS to be a global leader in this space. And I think and believe with intentionality and focus, and with stakeholder buy-in of all of our constituents, that we can, and we will get there."