Firing writers for speaking their minds shows MLS at its new, myopic worst

I promise this ties into Major League Soccer, as well as what it means that the league’s website fired a writer for criticizing a team, but consider this content: Did you know that the fourth hit that Google returns for the query “NFL.com Ray Rice” is a lengthy feature titled “What Makes a Hero?” It’s a story about how Rice helped victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and its URL is simply “NFL.com/rice.”

Here’s a sample:

“I’m not going to be ashamed,” Rice says, even as he girds himself to say what comes next. “It brought me to tears. To find out what happened to this guy. And it was like, ‘Why him, out of all people?’”

Reading it nearly made my eyes water, too, but the story reminds me: NFL.com is the front page of an alternate NFL reality, a whole planet unto itself, complete with its own economy, laws, leaders, citizens, and, crucially, apparatus for mythologizing its heroes. The site is one portal into a world that is so inviting that real-life media and marketing institutions fall into orbit. Just remember of the way ESPN seemed locked in gravitational pull by a mythical hero of its own creation named Tim Tebow.

The NFL is where smaller leagues want to be: Earning billions of dollars to let the media turn its employees into bankable demigods. But smaller leagues, leagues the size of Major League Soccer, are not among the dominant beasts in the sports media ecosystem. MLS is largely left to tell its own stories and construct its own mythology.

What stories would a league like MLS naturally want to tell? The temptation is to focus on the easy, marketable stuff: success, redemption, low-stakes controversy. It doesn’t just happen on a website; anybody who’s heard the attendance announced at Red Bull Arena knows they’re being told a fantastic yarn. But a league must also grapple with how to tell the negative stories, because sports fans love failure and disappointment and real controversy. Losing, as an organizing principle of sports, is impossible to avoid. It also makes for damn great reading.

For every first-place team, someone has to finish last. For every unbeaten streak, there’s probably a team that hasn’t won in months. For every Real Salt Lake — a team that didn’t lose any of its first 12 games —there is a Colorado Rapids, which, last Saturday, didn’t win for the 13th time in a row.

After that game, then MLSsoccer.com Rapids beat writer (and, therefore, part-time contractor of the league) Chris Bianchi responded to someone on Twitter with this:

https://twitter.com/Rapids_News/status/519565412959154176

Failure? Controversy? Quickly, for Bianchi, that meant unemployment.

In the hours after the game, Bianchi received an angry email from Rapids president Tim Hinchey (Deadspin has the nitty-gritty of their exchange). Days later, he was fired. Hinchey’s final email reportedly reads, in full, “Enjoy the weather,” a reference to Bianchi’s full-time job as a weather reporter for a local TV station.

Many who work for MLSsoccer.com have worked elsewhere as journalists, and they create some very good work. I often use the site’s beat reporters as a source of news, an American soccer wire service of sorts. It’s not perfect, but there are a lot of talented people working at MLSsoccer.com, and I’m generally in favor of more paid opportunities for writers to cover soccer.

For a good example of the editorial vs. marketing sides of MLSsoccer.com, consider Charles Boehm’s feature about artificial turf and this “companion piece” showing the “most memorable moments on artificial turf.” Fake grass is a tricky topic for the site to address well because so many MLS teams play on it, but I think Boehm succeeds by extensively quoting credible people like Claudio Reyna, Thierry Henry, Bob Lenarduzzi, and David Beckham, who have different opinions on the subject. As for its companion, there may be absolutely no bias behind pointing out all the great MLS games that have been played on turf, but as the first commenter notes, “What about the moment when Danny Cepero became the first MLS keeper to score a goal from his box thanks to an unnatural bounce against Columbus in 2008? Yeah that’s how awesome turf is.”

Bianchi’s tweet didn’t lay out an argument. It didn’t provide sources. His point of view — that the Rapids’ coaches had done reasonably well despite the club’s shoddy administration — is totally valid for a journalist or a fan to hold. However, when the Rapids front office and, it appears, MLS Digital, came down on him, he couldn’t point to either of those things in defense of his opinion.

Employers have the right to fire their employees for speaking out of turn. Journalists aren’t necessarily immune, yet the episode is troubling. Last week, during his rant about Jurgen Klinsmann, MLS commissioner Don Garber said, “I do not only ask, I insist that all those people who are paid to work in the sport, whether that’s an MLS employee, an MLS coach, or whether it’s a coach for the U.S. national team, they align with the vision that has been established by the leaders in the sport.”

This directive ought to bring any sports journalist to tears. Garber said that everyone who is paid to work in soccer should get in line, and I suppose it could be that he means “paid by MLS or U.S. Soccer.” But that isn’t what he said.

As the owner of an independent print magazine about American soccer (Howler) – one that has done two projects sponsored by the league — I can’t claim to be a business expert, but I’m pretty sure a message like that is a great way to stifle innovation. That’s what Garber is sending to the smart people who work for him at MLS and to the still relatively small number of soccer journalists who cover American soccer full-time. We’re all working toward making American soccer feel like a bigger, more wonderful world.

A culture, even a soccer culture, is really just a collection of stories we tell. We need more storytellers, and right now, that means we need people who want to do it in their spare time, like Bianchi. We also need to free those storytellers from the fear of losing their part-time gigs for talking about the Rapids front office, or calling out Commissioner Garber for sounding like he’s angling for a seat in Vladimir Putin’s box at the next World Cup. And it means doing it out in the open, with facts and sources, and that if you do it that way, your editors will do everything they can to protect you from the people you’re criticizing, even if those people are their own bosses.

Maybe my vision for the way a healthy independent media can transform our soccer culture is hopelessly misguided. Maybe that’s not what people want at all. My theories about alternative realities, open discussion, and the need for old school journalism could be all wrong.

But if that’s your view, you may want to gird yourself for what I’m about to say next, because I want to tell you about a distant planet where everyone makes enough money to agree that Mario Balotelli swapping shirts with someone should be considered news.

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