After a year where turmoil around the world promoted negative headlines and cultural divides, Real Salt Lake and Major League Soccer joined with other professional sports leagues around the country to promote racial equity and equality.
The Club took these societal issues to heart and opened the conversation to all involved with the Club and community with the intent to educate and understand how to make things better.
At RSL, it began with RSL Academy Director of Coaching Arnold Rijsenburg and RSL Community and quickly funneled its way into a Club-wide initiative. Enlisting the help of the RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) Program, the conversation quickly spread throughout the club with all employees committed to take part in weekly educational sessions with the program in order to enact change not only for themselves at RSL, but in their communities as well.
The introduction of a Club-wide program aimed to educate, empower and give confidence to its employees, athletes and their coaches, became a necessity in order to take steps forward as an organization. Through the newly established RSL Way mantra that promotes Integrity, Pride, Industry, Community and Harmony, the Club has been able to utilize the RISE program to enhance all of its core values and expand on its mission.
Employees, players and coaches committed to the program took part in eight weeks of training on topics such as diversity, equity, and inclusion, building trust and community and leadership and how to move forward as a positive vehicle for change. From the onset, each individual gained perspective into what it means to be a leader in their community and take action to promote respect, equality and understanding in their own lives and the lives of others.
“Using sport as a vehicle for change we’ve been able to identify the causes of these problems and the implications they carry in people’s lives and then find and enact the solutions to these problems,” Rijsenburg explained. “Using the RISE program has allowed for internal reflection for all involved and has helped set the course to make positive changes and gain new perspectives into the lives of one another and the people we’ve surrounded ourselves with.”
While conversations surrounding diversity and identity can oftentimes be difficult, the Club wanted to do more by taking charge, on the front foot, to begin the tough and uncomfortable discussions in order to hopefully create a more understanding and inclusive space.
By opening the conversation to the entire Club to promote equity among all people, the challenge to all involved was an exercise to strengthen the confidence in oneself to have those difficult conversations and use their voices for good.
“Being able to utilize the RISE programs has been great for our entire club from the front office all the way down,” RSL Vice President of Soccer Operations Rob Zarkos said. “It allowed everyone to sit back and take a look at their own prejudices and thought processes on how things work in society. It provided us a healthy chance to enter into conversations across the organization that we hadn’t talked about or hadn’t thought to have discussions about.”
RSL is now working together with Major League Soccer and the Vancouver Whitecaps FC organization and its supporters to show a unified message ahead of the upcoming meeting between the two sides on June 18, one day before the nationwide celebration of the Juneteenth holiday.
In 2020, RSL partnered with the African Stars – a local soccer club that was founded around refugee groups within the Salt Lake City area. Within those communities, soccer is a beloved game, but resources to participate within the pay-to-play model aren’t easily attainable. By partnering with RSL they have been able to receive the necessary tools to compete as a top-level youth club in the state of Utah. The African Stars field teams from the youth age up to lower 20-year-olds, of whom compete in the same division as the RSL Academy U-19 squad, and continue to grow at a rapid rate.
“It has been great hosting the African Stars through the use of our facilities, uniforms and coaching assistance,” Zarkos said. “We’ve been able to play their teams against the RSL Academy and provide coaching assistance all while providing the chance for a lot of the high-level players an opportunity to have a look at our Academy and possibly even the Monarchs. We’ve developed a relationship among the players with our club that we’ve seen grow immensely and has affected our club in a positive manner.”
In addition, RSL established a list of educational resources outlining what Juneteenth is and a recent New York Times article detailing the Senate’s passing of the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday and its significance in our nation’s history, as well as a list of local Utah Black-owned businesses and restaurants in an effort to help educate all who visit RSL.com and provide support to those within our community.