In 2018, when Wayne Rooney joined DC United of Major League Soccer following a celebrated career in England’s Premier League, he became more than just a star addition to the league. He also became an unexpected advocate for players’ rights.
“I feel that American players get underpaid,” Rooney told ESPN FC in September. “I feel they deserve to get more money to stay in line with football in the rest of the world but also in terms of the American sports. I’m not saying it to benefit me…I think it’s only fair to those players who are putting in the same work as all have to earn the right to earn more money for doing it.”
Rooney wasn’t the only former European soccer superstar to knock MLS. Zlatan Ibrahimovic also made the move to the league in 2018, following the well-worn path of many aging European soccer greats looking for a few more seasons on the pitch—and the opportunity to play in a league where an inferior talent pool allows them to maintain their star quality. (Describing the league’s talent, the outspoken Swede called himself “a Ferrari among Fiats.”) Shortly after arriving (and taking a massive 95 percent pay cut), Ibrahimovic began to voice his discontent with the league, citing poor refereeing, the quality of play, and the MLS playoff system, which he described as “shit.”
The criticism from these top players was not a good look for MLS. Their arrival was heralded by celebratory press conferences and a revved-up internal media wing that billed Irbahimovic’s arrival as a “hero’s welcome.” When Rooney signed with the DC United, the announcement was accompanied by a lavish, fawning profile and an over-the-top promotional video that would make Jerry Bruckheimer blush.
But as these stars began to criticize aspects of the league, MLS stayed silent. And while taking no action to address players’ concerns, the league showed its determination to stick to sports—as in, what was happening on the field.
This is typical for MLS. On its official website, MLSSoccer.com, stories, op-eds, videos, and the MLS podcast consistently gloss over or ignore anything even moderately contentious. Fans can read and watch videos covering match predictions, game recaps, strategies, and roster moves, and participate in fantasy leagues. But they’ll have to go elsewhere to read about the complaints filed by Ibrahimovic or Rooney. Instead, MLS takes a cue from the NFL—whose internal media arm regularly ignores even seemingly unignorable controversies (i.e. Colin Kaepernick)—leaving such debates to be hashed out by independent sports media outlets. For MLS, sticking to sports means covering only what polishes its brand. The league even has a policy allowing MLS to levy fines against players and coaches who speak negatively of MLS. Of course, these rules (which can’t be found online) are arbitrary and dished out only when it’s seen not to hurt MLS’s image. They apply to those like the lesser-known head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, Marc Dos Santos, who was recently fined an undisclosed amount for criticizing the the long break between seasons in an interview with The Athletic. Rooney and Ibrahimovic, with their international star power, remained unofficially exempt.
The other five major North American sports leagues all operate in their own particular ways, and the approach employed by MLS is not always the norm. MLB.com regularly addresses news about players and teams, both on and off the field. The website reported on the domestic violence allegations against Chicago Cubs’ shortstop Addison Russell, with updates as the story unfolded over the course of a month. And when the toxicology report was released after pitcher Tyler Skaggs died suddenly last season, the league not only noted that Skaggs’s death was the result of an opioid overdose, but interviewed his grieving teammate and MLB’s top star, Mike Trout, about it.
Compare the controversies around Skaggs and Russell to MLS’ vague coverage of former Portland Timbers forward Brian Fernandez after he checked himself into the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Program right before the playoffs. News items coming out of the official MLS channels were light on details. Without their star forward, the Timbers were knocked out of the first round of the playoffs; over a month later, Fernandez’s contract was terminated by the league. MLS left the latter as a short news item, but reporting by The Athletic and The Oregonian revealed a deeper story, one suggesting a complex issue that could strain the league’s budding relationship with Liga MX, Mexico’s top league, where many MLS players played before making the switch stateside. As it turns out, Fernandez had tested positive for a banned substance, and MLS was now planning to sue his former club, Necaxa of Liga MX, for not disclosing the player’s past substance abuse issues.
This policy of positive spin and outright censorship often has an effect that’s the opposite of what the league intends, making MLS look careless and insulting, particularly to its own fans. It’s a curious approach, considering that when it comes to attendance numbers, MLS remains a minnow among other top North American sports leagues—and the fact that polls have shown its fans tend to skew young, diverse, and liberal. (Attendance numbers have declined for two seasons in a row now, despite league expansion. And while average attendance is above the NBA and NHL, it’s heavily weighted by Atlanta United and Seattle Sounders, who average over 40,000 fans a game, far higher than the rest of the league—FC Cincinnati is the third highest, at 27,000.) The league’s insistence on limiting its coverage to what’s happening on the field also seems blind to the value sports holds beyond the particular matches being played: Sports and society reflect each other. What happens on the field has never been just about a game. To suggest otherwise (or to run a league this way, not to mention a website) alienates fans and players alike, and is an insult to the fans who are essential to the life of the sport.
This cluelessness was laid bare when the league’s media remained mostly silent during its embarrassing, widely covered spat last summer with Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers fans—two bitter rivals, with some of MLS’s most fervent supporters between them. Amid growing concern over the presence of radically right-wing contingencies at NYCFC games, MLS hastily implemented a ban on the display of political imagery and symbols. When the Timbers and Sounders fans responded to the right-wing pageantry by displaying the anti-fascist Iron Front logo at games, MLS came down with its own iron fist, demanding that the Timbers and Sounders organizations prevent the use of such symbols at games or face punishment.
The league took a similar line with Atlanta United, a team with a massive, dedicated group of supporters. When fans refused to adhere to the new MLS policy during a match in August and displayed anti-gun and anti-fascist messages, a number of them were ejected from the game. Some of them were slapped with year-long bans while others would be reinstated under the absurd condition that they take a four-hour “fan class” for $250, and write a letter of apology.
As with Rooney and Ibrahimovic, MLS had once again managed to sour a part of the league it should have been shoring up and celebrating. But this time, fans wouldn’t let the league bury the issue.
Players for the Timbers and Sounders actively took to social media to display their support for the fans and their anti-fascist stance. Then, fans of both teams responded by joining together to remain silent for the first thirty-three minutes of a nationally televised game between the two teams. Both clubs also created custom pennants for the game that included the phrases “anti-fascist” and “anti-racist,” and both teams posed for photos with the pennants before the game. The gesture garnered national attention and forced the ESPN pundits announcing the play-by-play for the game to explain, on-air, why 50,000 fans were sitting quietly, like they were at a tennis match, and not a game between the league’s most well-supported clubs.
It was a debacle for MLS, and the rest of the sports world looked on in confusion as the league openly warred with its most dedicated fanbases. Still, it took months for MLS to capitulate, after league officials finally met with supporter groups of the Portland Timbers and the Seattle Sounders to hash out an agreement that would let them use the Iron Fist symbol for the rest of the season. In a rare acknowledgment of controversy, the league posted an official statement on its website—its only word on the issue—full of dry corporate language that didn’t suggest any sort of long-term resolution.
Writing for Deadspin, Luis Paez-Pumar filed a piece under the site’s “MLS Sucks” tag, pinpointing the dunce-cap approach MLS was taking. “More often, ‘political’ actually means ‘potentially controversial in a way I and/or my customers might dislike’—rather than plain common sense,” wrote Paez-Pumar. “It is good, though, to have on record that MLS itself wishes to court ‘both sides’ of these so-called political issues, both normal people and avowed white supremacists alike, and cram them all into one big stadium together hoping no one brings up the fact that one ‘side’ wishes members of the other never existed.”
Of course, the league is big business, and it’s not surprising that it wants to protect its own image. But the refusal to acknowledge many of its issues reflects a larger problem: the draconian way Commissioner Don Garber runs the league. Garber’s cartel-like “plata o plomo” management has no tolerance for dissent or self-critique, and no room for speech or expression that might boost the league’s image and relevance with fans and players alike. MLS still has the final say on all financial matters, writing every player’s and team’s personnel paychecks, distributing money to teams, and changing league rules as it sees fit. With Garber’s hands twiddling with the purse strings, most players who aren’t already living comfortably from their multimillion dollar career (see Zlatan or Rooney) are left with little space to express their concerns without facing consequences.
Garber and company have repeatedly suggested that their firm hand is intended to help the league grow sustainably. As Garber continues to expand MLS, he and his top brass have devised what is essentially a competition: Who wants to own the next MLS franchise? For a cool $200 million, any thirsty rich person can enter. With that kind of money to be earned, it would be unsavory to note the league’s own shortcomings.
But this view is shortsighted. Complaints by its biggest stars and clashes with its most ardent fans diminish the league’s reputation, and thus its worth, suggesting it’s time for Garber to loosen his grip—particularly with the collective bargaining agreement between the league’s player union and MLS now set to expire on February 7, less than a month before the next season starts. With high-profile names voicing their support for better pay, coverage of the league from the Los Angeles Times to Sports Illustrated has suggested the possibility of MLS facing a player walk-out, as it did four years ago. If that happened, the financial damage might pale next to the consequences of further testing fans’ and sponsors’ loyalty and patience.
Yet if the tone of MLS’s media arm is any indication of what’s going on internally, top execs appear to have little interest in changing a culture that is more and more estranged from the fanbases and players it needs to survive.
This looks even worse when compared, once again, to MLB, which, despite a fanbase that is aging and leans conservative, acts with a greater degree of transparency. MLB doesn’t shy away from controversy. After the Houston Astros were caught using technology to steal signs from other teams, the league actively investigated the allegations—and you could read all about them in real time on MLB.com. Upon the conclusion of the investigation, the league’s commissioner’s office released a nine-page downloadable PDF to the site, laying out their findings and decisions. And when rumors of further cheating by the Astros’ Jose Altuve and All-Star Mike Trout began to circulate online in the aftermath of the league’s decision to fine and suspend manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, MLB was quick to respond, issuing a statement to debunk the rumors and prevent them from turning into full-blown fake-news chaos.
MLS’s failure to publicly acknowledge its own problems and controversies just makes the league appear out of touch. Not only does the failure to cover these issues make their media arm inessential to fans and drive them elsewhere, it also lets other media outlets control the narrative of these issues. Garber may only see dollar signs and a firm, guiding hand, but his failure to take into consideration the benefits of a more transparent, self-critical approach makes a mockery of the league.
With the MLS set to expand to thirty teams by 2021, and a new collective bargaining agreement on the table, the league sits at a crossroads that could catapult it into a new tier of popularity or keep it bogged down in controversy and embarrassing headlines. Garber and company would be wise to take a look out the windows of the league’s midtown Manhattan digs and admit that the future of the league doesn’t depend on what happens in a boardroom or during the ninety minutes of a match. It’s as much about what the fans and players do outside the white lines, and what the league does out there, too.