Words matter: Event outlines how FIFA’s ‘No Discrimination’ initiative already is impacting local clubs

Representatives from FIFA, 2026 N.Y./N.J. Host Committee, Red Bulls, Gotham FC and NYCFC discuss global effort to take stand against racist, misogynistic and homophobic behavior

When key leaders of the New York Red Bulls recently called New Jersey from Florida with the news that they had decided to pull their U15 and U17 Academy Teams out of a premier global youth tournament because of repeated racist insults, they were met with an unequivocal response from the parent organization: total support.

“I’m so incredibly proud that we were able to take a stand — and that our coaches felt comfortable coming to the leadership team and saying, ‘This is the decision,’” Red Bulls Chief Marketing Officer Elisa Padilla said.

Their actions, Padilla said, were about so much more than sports.

Gerd Dembowski, senior diversity and antidiscrimination manager at FIFA, gives a presentation during the diversity and antidiscrimination in sports discussion Saturday at William Paterson University in Wayne.

“Words matter; language matters,” she said. “And, when you’re on the pitch, it should be about playing the sport, and focusing on that, (not) the color of your skin.”

Padilla shared the story Saturday afternoon at William Paterson University, during a diversity and antidiscrimination in sports panel sponsored by the university and the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce — an event that featured Gerd Dembowski, the senior diversity and antidiscrimination manager at FIFA.

The incidents involving the Red Bulls, which came in games against teams from Mexico and Croatia in early April, showed three things:

  • Clubs increasingly are displaying a willingness to take public stances against racist, misogynistic and homophobic behavior;
  • Despite this, these behaviors still exist in a major way in the game;
  • FIFA’s “No Discrimination” initiative, launched in 2021 to address and combat such actions in the sport, both on the field and in the stands, is as important as ever.

Dembowski told the audience of more than 150 — and those watching on a livestream around the world — how FIFA will make its “No Discrimination” initiative a major part of its preparation leading up to, during and after the FIFA 2026 World Cup to be played in the U.S. (as well as Mexico and Canada).

Dembowski, who started the program by detailing a difficult personal event as a child that helped direct him into becoming an activist, talked of the various tools that are on the FIFA website to help clubs and leagues around the world — and the willingness of FIFA to step in and assist where appropriate.

Dembowski talked of how the World Cup will be the biggest stage for the message.

Panelist Brianna Keys, the director of human rights and sustainability for the N.Y./N.J. Host Committee, said the FIFA 2026 World Cup offers a chance to bring these types of issues and behaviors — on the field and in society — into the spotlight.

“This is bigger than soccer,” she told the audience. “And this is bigger than this tournament.”

Keys said the event can help underserved communities — and those facing the most human rights challenges — be seen.

“We are being really deliberate in our ask to the communities, saying, ‘Tell us what you need from us, tell us how we can partner together and lift you up and bring you in,’” she said.


Representatives from the three local professional clubs (the Red Bulls, Gotham FC and NYCFC) detailed the efforts they are making to confront misogynistic, racist and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

There are no easy answers — and no one-day efforts that will bring about the change needed.

It’s a process, they all said.

Brianna Keys of the N.Y./N.J. Host Committee, from left, Saara Hassoun of Gotham FC, Jennifer O’Sullivan of NYCFC, Elisa Padilla of the New York Red Bulls and Gerd Dembowski of FIFA discuss the ‘No Discrimination’ initiative.

Padilla said diversity, equity & inclusion is a daily driver with the Red Bulls, from the front office to the players to the youth academies to the fans. That the New Jersey/New York market is one of the most diverse in the country — if not the world — matters, too.

“We live it every single day,” she said. “It’s very important to us, because everyone deserves to be respected; everyone deserves to be seen and heard.”

It starts with awareness, Padilla said.

“We talked about DEI almost every day, so it becomes part of the culture … and the environment that you’re operating in: The behaviors that are acceptable and not acceptable.

“If anyone feels uncomfortable about anything, the policy is that you speak up.

“We are a people-first, player-first driven organization and, the second something feels off, you have to say so, because that is the only way we’re going to be able to stop it and course-correct it.”

The willingness to step up and address the issue is coming from more than just the clubs.

Dembowski told the story of a European academy club where issues got so bad that the players themselves self-advocated for a code of conduct that had to be signed by the players, the coaches and the parents.

Saara Hassoun, the chief of staff of Gotham FC, talked about how the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association has taken the lead on numerous issues — some of which are unique to the women’s game and how women train.

“It’s been really impactful to see how our athletes have stepped up,” she said.


All the panelists agreed there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There are different issues among teams of different levels and different genders playing on different continents with different cultural backgrounds.

That’s why William Paterson and the Pride Chamber worked so hard to bring the event together.

The goal, said Pride Chamber Executive Director Gus Penaranda, is to increase the dialogue on all issues of discrimination and hate.

Gerd Dembowski of FIFA, from left, Richard Helldobler, president of William Paterson, Lauren LaRusso, co-leader of the N.Y./N.J. Host Committee and Gus Penaranda, executive director of the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce, gather before the event Saturday.

Jennifer O’Sullivan, the chief operating officer of NYCFC and a member of the MLS DEI Committee, said dialogue will lead to education — and a greater understanding.

O’Sullivan pointed to the efforts of the Black Players for Change group in MLS.

“They have been crucial in voicing their concerns to the league, through the Players Association, to say, ‘These are things that are not acceptable, and we are not going to allow anymore.’

“They have that voice. The league has given them that opportunity to come to the table.”

O’Sullivan said the end goal of the group is noble.

“When you talk to the players, they take the position that it is about education,” she said. “It is about awareness; it’s not just about punitive action. Restorative justice is something that is important to them.”

MLS has given players second chances — on the recommendation of the group, O’Sullivan said.

“The Black Players for Change have taken that position that we don’t want this to simply be punitive, we want people to understand why the words they used are hurtful,” she said.

“Because the league is full of players from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds, what passes in one culture as acceptable may not pass in another. And, so, sometimes you have to bring people to the table to understand those things.

“We’re all human, people are going to make mistakes; repetitive, they are going to have consequences. But, I think, from a player perspective, having them be in charge and use their voices is a critical priority.”


Of course, sometimes you have to take a greater stand.

That’s what the directors of the Red Bulls academy teams did during the recent Generation Adidas Cup.

Padilla said it was the right decision, calling what happened heartbreaking.

She said Red Bull has seen the impact of its decision — in a positive way — in recent weeks.

O’Sullivan agreed.

The decision by the Red Bulls to take such public action resonated in the soccer world.

“You took a stand,” she said. “And, more importantly, you put that out on blast to everybody to know that this is not acceptable.

“If you hadn’t done that, no one would have known that that happened. Because you did that, you started a conversation.”

By doing so, the Red Bulls brought FIFA’s “No Discrimination” initiative into the mainstream, just as Dembowski and FIFA are so eager to do.