Evan Whitfield's quest: Whatever we can to make soccer more welcoming

Evan Whitfield is biracial. But with light skin, he escaped some of the prejudice – outright or subtle – that others faced.

When COVID struck, Whitfield had left soccer behind, for a law career in Chicago. But in Zoom chats with friends like DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Pope and Tony Sanneh, they realized many excellent Black players who had given a lot to American soccer were now outside the system.

Groups like Black Players for Change (over 170 players, coaches and staff) and SCORE (Soccer Collective On Racial Equality) began working to bridge racial injustices in the game and society. For example, although 25 percent of the players in MLS are Black, the percentage is far lower among coaching staffs, front office personnel and in broadcast booths.

Whitfield learned about groups like the Fare Network (formerly Football Against Racism in Europe). He joined Common Goal, a global player-led social movement. He helped launch the Anti-Racist Project, an initiative involving MLS and USL clubs, and the American Outlaws supporters group.

His legal practice was going well. Just a dozen years out of DePaul Law School – following Duke University, seven MLS seasons and spot on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team — he was already a partner.

But when his former club, the Chicago Fire, offered a chance to be an active change participant, he returned to soccer. In January, the Fire appointed Whitfield its first-ever vice president of equity, alumni relations and engagement.

Evan Whitfield, born and raised in Arizona, played college ball at Duke in 1995-1998, coached by John Rennie. Whitfield made his MLS debut for the Bob Bradley-coached Chicago Fire in 2000 and played 118 MLS games before retiring after his 2005 season with Real Salt Lake. He enrolled at DePaul Law School in 2006 and graduated in 2009.

Whitfield’s work includes community development, launching a program for the Fire’s 310 former players, corporate and government relations, and leading club-wide efforts to support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

That last charge is important. A link on the Fire’s website to “Our Pledge” reads: “We need to do more. And we will. That has been our Club’s promise since undertaking a pledge to be more active contributors in the fight against racism and to better use our platform to bring about positive social change.”

The Fire had already taken steps to educate staff members. Last fall – before joining the club – Whitfield facilitated six weeks of training with executives from that club, the USL Oakland Roots and NWSL’s Angel City FC.

Whitfield’s new role is unique, he says. He does not know of any other MLS club currently playing with a DEI executive.

In fact, he says, of the 28 MLS teams, only nine have information on their website in a language other than English. Just three offer the ability to purchase tickets in another language, from the first landing page on: CF Montral, Charlotte FC and Inter Miami.

One-third of the league’s fan base is Hispanic, he says. “Why wouldn’t a club like Chicago, with our huge Latino population, have that already?” he asks.

Evan Whitfield played in the USA's quarterfinal win over Japan at the 2000 Olympics in Australia, where the Clive Charles-coached U.S. team finished fourth.

Whitfield is pleased that the Fire has donated to Common Goal’s Play Proud program, a grassroots effort to make the sport and stadiums safer for the LGBTQ+ community. Eight professional teams in the U.S., Canada and Mexico sent front office staff to 50 hours of training in Los Angeles, and another 50 in Monterrey, Mexico.

The Fire’s coaches, from U-13 youth academy through MLS II, have undergone training too. Some were initially hesitant, Whitfield acknowledges. But many later said they realized the importance of inclusive language, and combating hyper-masculinity. (Players are often far more open than coaches, he notes. “Our U-15 team is so progressive and open, the coaches didn’t even need it.”)

During the Fire’s Pride Night match against the Philadelphia Union, supporters from both sides worked together. The teams wore branded Pride shirts. Halftime included a special broadcast segment. And on the website, right next to the crest, there’s a rainbow flag. One click brings users to a detailed explanation of the club’s commitment to the LGBTQ+ community.

The Fire has also joined forces with Switch the Pitch. A partnership between Common Goal, Soccer Without Borders, Soccer in the Streets and DC Scores, it’s a social media youth-oriented project to build inclusive, anti-racist team cultures. There ae 36 “challenges” designed to educate, activate and facilitate exchanges between coaches and players, as well as a coach training series.

“We’ll do whatever we can to make soccer more welcoming to Black and brown men and women, boys and girls,” Whitfield says.

Recently, a spark was lit across the world to make the sport more inclusive. The Chicago Fire is eager to fan those flames.

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