Chivas USA: Is It Ever OK to Transform an Incumbent Organization Into One Classified By Race/Nationality?

Kris Dunn Change, Current Affairs, Diversity, HR & Sports, Kris Dunn

There are obviously plenty of organizations where members are identified by their race, national origin, gender, and age. I don’t have to list them here – you know them, and many of you may belong to one or more, and those organizations are general present to advance the cause of their members based on that identifier. More often than not, these organizations serve their membership with an eye on protected status and a history of discrimination that necessitated the special interest group to being with.

I know – that was a thick intro. You’re welcome.

Now let’s get to the interesting part.

Is it ever OK for an organization that historically has had no such special interest mission to move to special interest status? What if that meant they had to displace workers and members who didn’t fit the mission moving forward based on race or nationality moving forward? Is that OK?

Ladies and Gentleman, meet the Chivas USA soccer organization. Here’s the best rundown I can find of the situation from the LA Times, I’m using the entire article here due to the thickness of the issues included:

“Former Chivas USA youth team coaches Daniel Calichman and Theothoros Chronopoulos have sued the club for discrimination after being fired as the team sought a return to its “Mexican roots,” reports Matt Reynolds of the Courthouse News Service.

The report states the coaches claim they were harassed, suspended and then fired in March after raising discrimination concerns with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In response, they have filed a legal complaint against Chivas USA and its affiliates.

“Specifically, the defendants, at the behest of Chivas USA’s new sole owner, Jorge Vergara, sought to import and implement similar discriminatory employment practices to those practiced by Chivas de Guadalajara – a professional Mexican soccer team that systematically refuses to field any non-Mexican individuals. Rather than base their employment decisions solely on considerations of merit or skills as do all other MLS franchises – Chivas USA management unlawfully makes personnel decisions on the basis of ethnicity and national origin,” the complaint states.

Calichman and Chronopoulos worked with the Chivas USA Youth Academy for more than a year before there was a noticeable shift in the club’s philosophy, according to the report. They claim there was a concerted effort to create a Mexican-American roster and coaching staff.

The complaint cites an early March article by Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times, which explores the changes under owner Jorge Vergara. In it, manager Jose Luis Sanchez Sola denies the club’s decisions were based on ethnicity.

New Chivas Manager Jose Luis Sanchez Sola says the moves were made for soccer reasons and not based on ethnicity. But just one of the 14 players cut loose has Mexican nationality while 10 of the additions are either Mexican-born or have Mexican parents, making them eligible to compete for both Chivas USA and Chivas de Guadalajara, which has never used a non-Mexican player in its 107 years.

The coaches state in the complaint that Chivas USA did little to investigate their claims of discrimination and now seek damages for a wide range of charges. They include, but are not limited to, discrimination, harassment, retaliation and wrongful firing.

Chronopoulos points to a meeting with Vergara as an example of the discriminatory practices. Part of the complaint, as passed along in the Courthouse News Service report, focuses on the owner’s humiliation of those who didn’t speak Spanish.

“On or about November 13, 2012, Mr. Vergara – now the sole owner and highest ranking senior executive at Chivas USA – called a mandatory meeting of all employees, including plaintiff Mr. Chronopoulos. At the meeting, Mr. Vergara intentionally humiliated all employees who were neither Mexican nor Latino. Mr. Vergara brazenly announced that all non-Spanish speaking employees would be fired. He asked, publicly, for those employees who were able to speak Spanish to raise their hands (he initially asked the question in Spanish and then repeated it in English). He then asked employees who spoke English to raise their hands. After publicly identifying those employees who did not speak Spanish, he announced that those employees who did not speak Spanish would no longer be able to work at Chivas USA,” the complaint states.”

Calichman and Chronopoulos both played in Major League Soccer for various clubs over the past two decades before moving into coaching roles. The complaint was lodged in Superior Court. Along with Chivas USA, Chivas USA Enterprises, Chivas USA Futbol Education, Insperity and Insperity Business Services are also defendants against the charges, according to the report.”

So let’s do a quick reset. Chivas USA is a soccer organization that prior to the moves outlined above, had a diverse roster with many races and nationalities represented. Then, they made a move to make LA-based Chivas USA more closely resemble the parent club in Mexico.

I could make the argument that it’s a sound business strategy in SoCal from a marketing perspective—a way to differentiate the club. It’s also pro sports, and you know—we tend to expect harsher realities there than we do in a normal workplace.

But wait, there’s more. Not sure if you caught it or not, but the coaches cited were actually working in the Chivas USA youth club program. Many professional soccer clubs have youth programs that serve as feeder groups and are part of the marketing strategy as well. Sites like this one show what a recent Real Sports (show on HBO) feature uncovered—the parents of those youth were asked to fill out forms identifying their nationality at the time the other moves cited above were being made. So, it goes beyond pro sports.

Smart marketing move or discrimination on the part of Chivas USA? Or both?

Is this OK? Hit us in the comments with your take.

Kris Dunn

Kris Dunn is a Partner and CHRO at Kinetix, a national RPO firm for growth companies headquartered in Atlanta. He’s also the founder Fistful of Talent (founded in 2008) and The HR Capitalist (2007) – and has written over 70 feature columns at Workforce Management magazine. Prior to his investment at Kinetix, Kris served in HR leadership roles at DAXKO, Charter and Cingular. In his spare time, KD hits the road as a speaker and gives the world what it needs – pop culture references linked to Human Capital street smarts.