Monday, July 22, 2024

Sola Winley on his role at MLS for Juneteenth

Sola Winley

This week Major League Soccer (MLS), Black Players for Change, and Adidas unveiled special initiatives to commemorate Juneteenth. A special edition pre-match “I AM #19” shirt that acknowledges the significance of Juneteenth, celebrates all players as agents of change, and unites around the work being done by MLS and their partners. The pre-match shirt, designed by Adidas Licensed Sports Graphics Manager Todd Stansbury, was worn by players during pre-match warm-ups prior to MLSmatches played between June 15 – June 19.

Sola Winley, Executive Vice President, Chief Engagement and Inclusion Officer of Major League Soccer spoke with Taji Mag about his role with MLS and some of the initiatives developed for Juneteenth and other diversity initiatives. 

Catalina Combs (CC): Could you say your exact title and what your role is?

Sola Winley (SW): Sure! My title is Executive Vice President, Chief Engagement and Inclusion Officer. I oversee all of our inclusion work and our player engagement work. So that’s all of the player care and well-being of our athletes from the Academy up to the first team. So their well-being off the field and all of our community engagement work and the community impact work the league is involved in.

CC: Awesome. And what was your experience with soccer as a kid? How did you grow up in the soccer realm?

SW: So my experience with soccer was minimal. I think that’s being generous. I wasn’t exposed to soccer when I grew up in New York City. It wasn’t a sport that was presented to us as an option, as an individual or a team sport. The first time I saw a soccer ball, I was at summer camp. At that point, 12 years old. But I do remember Pele, and I remember, you know, his smile, and I remember his energy. And I remember him being a superstar, and I was attracted to him. As quickly as he came into our awareness, he disappeared. But I do have that recollection.

When I started at the office in 2021 and introduced myself to the staff at the office, I asked them for two things. One was for some grace because I don’t know much about soccer, and I’m going to lean on them. The second was some forgiveness because I’m sure I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. They can offer me those two things and grant me those things and then be able to help me navigate my way and make contributions to the enterprise. Here we are, three-plus years later.

CC: Amazing. So today, we’re talking about MLS and Adidas’ partnership with Black Players for Change. Tell us how that came to be.

SW: Sure! Adidas is one of the league’s longest-standing partners and one of our most important partners globally. We’ve been doing various events and activations with Adidas. They are our jersey manufacturer, and they create a lot of the theme tops for commemorative months – Hispanic Heritage Month, Pride. We also have a good Earth Day top for us as well. So we’re deeply invested in Adidas as a brand, but also in growing the sport of soccer here in America.

Black Players for Change was formed after the murder of George Floyd. They advocated for the league to make a series of changes. One was hiring a Chief Diversity Officer and a series of other commitments, civic engagements, and upward soccer mobility to ensure that more folks from underrepresented groups were being elevated into more decision-making positions. They have been a terrific partner with us over the last three years, helping us evolve some of our policies and practices. 

They’ve contributed to every Juneteenth event the league has participated in since 2020. First was the demonstration at the bubble in Orlando during COVID, and then a series of iterations since then. This year, we really wanted to do something we felt could invite and incorporate all the players in the league. We have players that come from 79 different countries in the league. We’re the most diverse professional sports league in the world. A lot of our players are unfamiliar with Juneteenth. Some are just unfamiliar with the various holidays we celebrate here in America. So we’re continuing to educate our players and fans about important cultural moments here in North America.

So the idea of creating a top with Adidas and with Black Players for Change was an invitation for all players to be unified, to band together with one voice as agents of change. That change is being a more inclusive, inviting, supportive community that’s rooted in dignity and respect for all. All of our players can get behind that. That’s really what this year represents and what it reflects. We all want to live in a space where we can excel and be part of a community where we’re free to pursue our dreams and allow the best of our spirits to come forward. So, all players will be wearing a number 19 on the back. And on the front, it says in the middle a big “I AM” and “Players For Change.” The simplicity of the message is where its power lies. 

This year, there’s also an opportunity for fans to participate by actually purchasing the shirt. In previous years, we didn’t have that option, but now they can, so you can find it in your local retail shop at one of our stadiums, or you can find it at at an affordable price point. We have proceeds going back to local impact organizations and markets to continue supporting the social justice work that is vital to this country.

CC: That’s awesome. Some people would argue that a chief diversity officer or anything regarding diversity, and equity inclusion initiatives, with its rise in seminars and training and articles, is just a “hot new topic.” What are your thoughts on that? Why does it seem like something new for us when it isn’t? 

SW: I don’t know the answer to that. There are probably folks who feel that way, and there’s probably a whole bunch of folks who don’t think that way as well. You know, DEI work has been happening in corporations for over two decades. There’s nothing new about it. There have been over 200 research articles that support the fact that more diverse and inclusive organizations are more profitable. So there’s nothing inherently negative about it. I think people have concerns about whether one group is going to be favored over another group. That’s not the approach that we take. The approach that we take in Major League Soccer, which isn’t in who we are as an organization, is the rich cultural tapestry that comprises the league. We have players coming from all over the world. There’s nothing to manufacture there. It creates an opportunity for us to not just celebrate it, but harness that rich diversity and inclusivity, that’s only going to continue to propel our league forward. Our fans will see it’s an inducing environment where they feel welcome, and that their culture is acknowledged and celebrated. We’re part of the global soccer community and one that we should all feel very proud of. 

Miles Robinson - FC Cinncinati - Juneteenth Capsule
Miles Robinson – FC Cinncinati – Juneteenth Capsule

CC: Thank you for that. I grew up watching MLS as a kid. I was automatically a Galaxy fan, rooting for Cobi Jones. When I went to college in the Bay Area, I was at San Jose Earthquake games, rooting for Landon Donovan. So MLS and soccer, in general, is just ingrained in me. I still play, also. 

I was excited, even as a girl, watching these guys play. Now we have a women’s league, which is amazing. But it was always about seeing diverse players on the field. What have been some of the highlights of your career? What’s the proudest moment, personally? 

SW: First, so you know, since you’re a Cobi fan, he participated in a photo shoot. You see him in one of the shirts, so be on the lookout for that.

I’m most proud of developing talent within our office and developing and supporting talents at our clubs. They continue to bring their whole self forward and the very best of their capabilities to move our organization forward. We often focus a lot on data. We focus on numbers, and those are important. But behind those numbers are human beings and real people, and people matter to me. People’s careers matter to me, and their contributions matter. That’s where I get the greatest source of energy and joy, seeing other people live to their full potential and bring that full potential to have an impact on others and an expectation that they also will pay that forward. When they get in a position of leadership, to identify good people who are capable of doing great things and doing everything they can to give them the resources to be able to do that, that’s what I’m most satisfied with at this point, and I hope to be able to continue to have an impact on people’s careers going forward.

CC: Opposite, what are some of the struggles you’ve encountered in your role?

SW: Changing systems is challenging. We operate in a world of systems. That is always the most difficult element. One that requires thoughtfulness and balance. You have to be able to understand different perspectives. It’s important to know what you don’t know and to be competent about what you do know. It’s an awesome responsibility to be given, to impact an organization, and impact the system for change. You have a variety of different stakeholders. It’s the most challenging aspect of understanding other people’s perspectives and points of view, understanding what’s in the best interest of moving the business forward, and trying to bring all of that together. It requires internal balance to see that you don’t move from an emotional place, but that you move from a place that is objective rather than subjective.

CC: The last question I have for you is, what’s one goal you have set for yourself at work that has yet to come to fruition? 

I’m not sure. Actually, everything that we have set out to do so far, we’ve made progress. I want to make sure that the league continues to progress and make every contribution I can. I tell my team that every day is a new day and that tomorrow’s problems are tomorrow’s problems. Our job is to show up and be the very best that we can every day.

Sola WInley at MLS for Juneteenth

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