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Do Not Discuss List, Internal Investigation at Major League Soccer

League constantly reaches out to media to push favourable stories but now specifically bans its clubs and their employees from discussing the impact of COVID-19.

MIAMI, Fla. — (26 May 2020) Amid a controversial plan to restart games, MLS finds itself in yet additional controversy that goes directly to the image of transparency.

According to a story that was published in The Athletic, one of the most reputable sports journals in North America, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber sent a memo to all league and club personnel Friday threatening employees with disciplinary action, including termination of employment as well as fines up to $1 million, for divulging information to the media concerning a potential return from its COVID-19 suspension. That letter explicitly singled out The Athletic, which has been nearly the only source of information about the league’s plan to return to play by staging a tournament in Orlando.

Garber wrote that MLS has been working with an investigative firm “to determine the source(s)” of what he referred to as “leaks.” Under the league constitution, the Commissioner has the absolute authority to impose discipline on any MLS employee or owner. Becuase of the legal structure of MLS as a limited liability company, this means Garber has the authority to discipline any employee of any team.

Commissioner Don Garber speaking with Alexi Lalas at SoccerEx USA 2019 in Miami. | Photo: KE Russo

According to the commissioner, the leaked information “impacts our negotiations with players, commercial partners and local authorities” and could “severely imperil the future of our League.” 

The letter contained a list of subjects that no one affiliated with MLS is allowed to discuss with the outside world.

MLS’ Do Not Discuss List

Four areas that league and club personnel are prohibited from publicly discussing: 

  • The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on MLS or its clubs
  • Any potential approaches to returning to play
  • Any discussions with the MLSPA, including information about potential pay cuts
  • Any information discussed in MLS Board of Governor calls, MLS committee calls or meetings or in any other forum in which “official League business” is covered

The controversial tournament plan calls for all 26 teams and their personnel to report in June to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, a 220 acres (89.03 hectares) athletic complex located in the Walt Disney World Resort, in Bay Lake, Florida, near Orlando. The teams and their personnel would go into a strict quarantine there during the training and subsequent eight to ten week tournament.

The plan has been met with much concern by MLS players. The virus has not gone away, despite certain states that have “reopened” and efforts on the part of some state and federal government officials to downplay its threat. Players have legitimate concerns about their health and safety, as do staff employees at MLS clubs. Perhaps the bigger issue is the fact that the tournament would mean players being away from their homes and families for 8 to 10 weeks without the ability to return, and the increaed burden on those family members left behind.

According to The Athletic, several players (who did not wish to be named) were also displeased about the league’s lack of communication on the Orlando plan.

The MLSPA, the union for the players, must agree on the Orlando plan before it can take place. The MLSPA submitted a list of about 100 questions to the league regarding the details of the plan on or about May 16, and it is alleged the league did not respond until just before this past weekend, and that those responses to the players’ union were incomplete.

As for the internal investigation and the ban on speaking about the tournament plans or how COVID-19 has impacted the league and its clubs, these are matters that are of legitimate public interest. Fans want to know about how their club is doing. The sports media wants to and has a right to discuss it. While as a private entity MLS has the right to control what information about the company is discussed with the media, they operate in the very public space of professional sports, and for that reason, carte blanche bans on talking about a relaunch or how the league is faring doesn’t put the league in a good light. In contrast, leagues in Europe and their clubs have been much more willing to talk about their plans and the impact of the virus.

Censorship is never a good thing, and the lack of information and discussion coming from the league gives rise to a negative inference that they are hiding information.

By Ken Russo

My work in the business of soccer applies skills acquired in law practice with a focus on the sport's commercial, communications and sporting components. Russo Soccer aims to inform, educate and engage in dialogue on news and relevant issues in the game.

Um advogado por formação, concentro meu trabalho nos negócios, comunicações e operações de equipes no futebol mundial. | Abogado con fundación avanzada en comunicaciones, enfocado en los negocios del fútbol y las comunicaciones. | Je suis un avocat experimenté dans les affaires de football.

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