There are usually two different types of sports reboots: ones that are optional and ones that are done out of necessity. Reboots that are optional are usually done via teams that still have a chance at titles but for one reason or another (salaries, ownership looking to change the playing style) a change is being made. The second type of reboot is far more serious, with teams usually needing to change because of mismanagement, organizational issues, or there are personal or legal problems. This past summer, Real Salt Lake had possibly one of the worst cases of number two. With separate allegations of racism and sexism, RSL has found itself in dire need of a reboot.
On the surface, it almost seems strange talking about RSL as being a failing club. Since coming into MLS in 2005, RSL has been one of the pre-eminent clubs in the league, building a strong fan base, youth development academy, and a winning philosophy. Their rugged defensive work and measured play in the midfield has made them a staple at the top of the Western Conference with the side making the playoffs ten times in their fifteen-year history. Their home stadium, Rio Tinto, is considered to be one of the top parks in Major League Soccer. Furthermore, their ability to bring in large crowds led to two more clubs, the Utah Royals FC of the National Women’s Soccer League and the Real Monarchs of the United Soccer League, joining RSL in the Beehive state (Utah Soccer Holdings, which owns Real Salt Lake, also owns the Royals and the Monarchs).
While things seemed to be going in the right direction for RSL and the other members of the Utah Soccer Family, things over the last year began to unravel. The first major sign of problems came in August of last year when former coach Mike Petke was fired after making homophobic remarks at an official during a League Cup match. While that incident at that time appeared to be a one-off situation. problems within the club would soon surface.
In late August, RSL players opted to sit out their match against LAFC as part of a league-wise protest against racial injustice and police brutality. Their owner Dell Loy Hansen went on to a local radio station that he owns to voice his displeasure with their decision. In his interview Hansen said that it felt, “like somebody stabbed you and you’re trying to figure out a way to pull the knife out and move forward. … The disrespect is profound to me personally.” After his comments were released a report from The Athletic detailed multiple first-hand accounts of past incidents in which Hansen had made racially charged comments to staff, players, and club employees over the course of time in which he has owned the club.
The response to Hansen’s actions were swift. Players throughout the league and across different sports who were already mobilized and angered at repeated videos showing police brutality on African Americans immediately called for Hansen to sell the club. Both MLS and the NWSL initially announced that their would-be independent investigations into Hansen’s behavior. Those investigations though would not be necessary as Hansen would announce that he would be selling Utah Soccer Holdings.
One would think that would be the end of RSL’s troubles. But it wasn’t. Just one day after Hansen’s announcement, local soccer website RSL Soapbox released a report detailing issues of sexism and the toxic office culture in Utah Soccer Holdings. The report provides multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior from both Hansen and Chief Business Officer Andy Carroll towards female employees. These accusations led to Carrol to taking a leave of absence. Utah Royals FC Coach Craig Harrington has also taken a leave of absence from the women’s side, leaving a darker cloud over Utah soccer.
How RSL and its sister clubs get out of this turmoil is unknown. While it would be easy to say that Hansen selling the club would solve everything it is far more complicated than that. With two other clubs tied to Utah Soccer Holdings and all three leagues looking to keep their clubs in the state finding an owner during tough economic times is not going to be an easy task. Finding corporate sponsors will also be a challenge-Of RSL’s thirty corporate partners nearly half are owned by Hansen directly. Unwinding Hansen’s ties to the three clubs will take months, possibly years to do. But it is necessary: supporters have already shown that they will not support a club that has any ties to Hansen or the old guard.
While it may be some time until RSL supporters see their club at the top of the standings they will certainly agree that there are bigger things than the play on the field. Developing a culture not based on fear, racism, or sexism is a difficult process but it at least appears that the club is finally moving in the right direction.
By Sean Maslin