The 2018 Major League Soccer Racial and Gender Report Card

Atlanta United was the epicenter of the MLS' growth in popularity in 2018. John Adams/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released the 2018 Major League Soccer Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC). MLS earned an A for racial hiring practices and a C-plus for gender hiring practices, making the league's overall grade a B-plus.

Professional soccer in the United States is becoming a true force in the sports industry. In 2018, MLS was named Yahoo Finance's sports business of the year. Although still behind the Big Four leagues in the country, MLS has seen massive increases in viewership. For MLS Cup, which was aired on Fox last year, viewership was up 71 percent from 2017 to its highest rating since 1997.

At the team level, we are seeing similar progress. The Atlanta United were not only last year's MLS Cup champions but had the highest average attendance of any U.S. pro sports team that was not an NFL team. In fact, last year it rose to becoming one of the 15 most-attended pro sports teams in the world. MLS was chosen to be the most sustainable of the 20 men's top professional football leagues globally in the eighth annual RESPONSIBALL ranking report.

As its level of prominence continues to rise, MLS is in a position to have the league office, teams and athletes act as a positive force in creating unity in a divided country. One of the biggest ways to accomplish this is by having leadership and a workforce that looks like America. Thankfully, MLS made a relatively large stride in its racial hiring practices in 2018 with a score of 92.5, which was a 4.3-point increase from 88.2 points in 2017.

Across the board, racial hiring categories scored very well. The MLS earned an A-plus for the league office, players, and assistant coaches, an A for general managers, and a B-plus for team professional administration and head coaches. The league's lowest grade in this category was a C-plus for team senior administration, which increased significantly from the D the league had in 2017.

This upside, however, was paired with another discouraging decrease in MLS's gender hiring practices, which fell to 76.8 points in 2018. This was the second year in a row that we saw a step back. Two years ago, in 2016, MLS received a gender hiring score of 81.0. The MLS received a B-plus for league office employees while team professional administration received a C and senior team administration earned a D-plus. It should be a high-priority focus across the league to address this situation and get MLS back on track in 2019. It is following a pattern in all professional sport to have decreases in gender hiring.

Throughout each of the Racial and Gender Report Cards, our research team consistently sees a pattern of professional sport teams failing to follow the example set by their respective league offices in terms of diversity and inclusion. Things were no different this year in the MLS. In 2018, the league office set the standard with people of color comprising 38.6 percent of all professional positions, while women filled 40.9 percent of those positions.

MLS teams have historically had the worst record in professional sport for hiring people of color as team vice presidents. This year, there was an 8.4 percentage point increase in the representation of people of color in these roles and a 7.9 percentage point increase in the representation of women. Both are promising signs in increasing the diversity of leadership positions across the league.

Lastly, it should be noted that the MLS is continuously expanding into new markets of the United States. Last year was eventful in this space, as Cincinnati FC was officially awarded an expansion team last May and will start competing in 2019. In addition to the Cincinnati club, MLS has plans for three more expansion clubs by 2020: Inter Miami FC and Nashville SC are both confirmed for 2020, and a team in Austin, Texas, with a starting date to be determined. As mentioned previously, the league can take advantage of this expansion and growth in popularity to further define MLS as an inclusive organization committed to equality.

Last summer, we watched the FIFA World Cup, one of the most awe-inspiring sporting events in the world as it dominated headlines and all channels of media. But racism and hate found a way to penetrate the seemingly untouchable competition of the sport.

One of the most prominent stories surrounded a midfielder on the Swedish national team, Jimmy Durmaz, who was subjected to a barrage of racist threats after giving away a free kick that led to opponent Germany's stoppage-time game-winning goal. Durmaz was born in Sweden to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey, and he is proud of his heritage. However, after the unfortunate event of giving up the free kick, the midfielder later received comments calling him a "bloody darkie" and "suicide killer." His family also received death threats.

The sport of soccer is loved across every country, language and culture. It has the power to influence the minds of people in every corner of our world. If used correctly, "the beautiful game" could serve as a symbol for unity in such treacherous times. Durmaz's teammates on the Swedish national team stood together in a video showing their solidarity with their teammate after the incident, representing the pride they had as a group of people from varying backgrounds playing for their country.

In America, MLS is in such a strong position to grow into a league that promotes unity and disarms prejudice. It is an amazing example of human beings coming from all walks of life to join together and compete as one. I have high hopes set for Major League Soccer in the country I call home. I call on the leaders throughout the league to realize the power their sport has on the people of the U.S. and continue building a workforce that looks like them. We have made promising strides, but there is still have a long way to go and so much more can be done.

Brett Estrella made significant contributions to this column.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.