“Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” may have disputed origins and be technologically unfit for our current media world, but it’s a good piece of advice for sports leagues and figures nonetheless. We’ve seen time after time how silly fights with the media have gone poorly for college coaches and programs, but other leagues appear to have not gotten the memo.

The latest offender is Major League Soccer (which has had issues on this front before, especially with forcing MLSsoccer.com Colorado Rapids beat writer Chris Bianchi out) and Sporting Kansas City in particular. Sporting KC wrote a nasty response last month to The Howler over Robert Andrew Powell‘s excellent feature on Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure and his attempt to bring MLS to Miami in conjunction with David Beckham, which included banning them from covering future games. That got more attention in the last few days thanks to Longform.org republishing the story and Fox Soccer’s Alexi Lalas asking MLS commissioner Don Garber about certain elements of it, particularly Claure calling MLS’s ownership and salary structure “communist” (in a good way!) Lalas also reached out to Sporting KC, who appear to have changed their stance once the big guns came around:

Howler founder/editor George Quirashi had some interesting tweets about the magazine and its approach Monday after Lalas’ tweet:

There are some good thoughts in there, but they’re all really summed up in this one:

That’s the issue MLS appears to have, and they’re far from alone on that front. There’s an incredible amount of growing pushback from teams and leagues against journalists, especially when they dare to be at all critical. Consider Marshawn Lynch, Michele Roberts, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the English Premier League and all the college sports examples linked at the top of this post. Many teams and leagues seem to believe that they can control the message by clamping down on anyone who isn’t uniformly positive. Fortunately for journalists, though, there is still a significant audience out there for critical-when-necessary journalism rather than just team-issued press releases. It’s also more possible than ever to do good journalism without full access, and that’s why these attempts are ultimately doomed to failure. In fact, most of the recent ones have been reversed as soon as a wider spotlight has been shone on them, as appears to have been the case here. Good for Lalas and Fox for bringing more attention to this, but shame on Sporting Kansas City and MLS for the way they behaved before they were called out.

It’s notable that MLS is a league that’s often had a schizophrenic relationship with the media. On the one hand, MLS is always crying out for more coverage and a bigger place on the North American sporting scene. On the other hand, the league long has been deliberately obtuse on a variety of issues, some shared by other leagues (CBA negotiations, profits/losses and stadium funding, for example) and some all of their own (blind bids, allocation order, single-entity status and the implications of that, and more). They want coverage, but they don’t want to be transparent. They want impartial media to notice them, but they don’t actually want those media to dig into the league’s issues. It’s very difficult to have it both ways.

As per the actual issues Sporting KC raised in their letter of protest to The Howler? They said “We are extremely dissatisfied with the validity of what has been presented regarding Robert Powell’s article and the unauthorized, unscrupulous technique in which [sic] was used. We completely deny and disagree with the alleged quotes, context and description of what transpired for less than six minutes in the private suite at the Sporting Kansas City versus Chicago Fire match on October 10, 2014.” Arguing about quotes is one thing, but it’s interesting that it’s Sporting Kansas City coming in so hard here rather than Claure himself; if there’s anything inflammatory in that piece (and there isn’t much; it’s well-done, and raises some big questions about the Miami bid, but seems to do so in a fair manner), you’d think it would be Claure’s comments about things such as MLS being “communist.”

Instead, it appears that the only people protesting here are the Sporting KC owners, who are barely quoted. Only two of the five, Cliff Illig and Robb Heineman, are quoted at all, and really the only objectionable thing there is Heineman saying “If labor ever tells us they’re going to strike, we’d be like, ‘Fine, we’ll replace each and every one of you.'” Sure, that’s probably not a quote he’s thrilled to have out there, and it may have proven particularly fiery in February while CBA discussions were still going on, but it seems highly unlikely that Powell made it up, and it’s probably not a quote that’s inflammatory enough to have real consequences.

The complaints of an “unauthorized, unscrupulous” technique are also ridiculous, and they speak to MLS (much like Roberts) misunderstanding the media. Here’s how Powell described his interaction with the Sporting KC owners:

At halftime, Cliff Illig, one of Sporting Kansas City’s five principal owners, stepped in to introduce himself. We talked a bit about Howler, and about my being there to write about Claure. Another owner, Robb Heineman, joined the conversation.

So, in Powell’s account (and Sporting KC has offered no reason to question it so far), the owners sought him out and were well aware of his role as a journalist. Thus, they have no cause to complain about anything they said being reported, unless they specifically asked for and were granted off-the-record status (which doesn’t appear to have been the case). Sure, Powell may not have looked like he was doing a formal interview (he talks about drinking and eating with Claure, so this was a more-relaxed environment, but that’s not uncommon for magazine profiles), but that doesn’t take away his status as a reporter. If the owners wanted to ensure their comments weren’t repeated, they should have not made them at all, or asked for off-the-record status. They don’t appear to have done either, so they don’t have much cause for complaint here.

Really, this speaks to the larger issue of MLS and its teams misunderstanding media, though. Media are not there to report only the unquestionably positive things about MLS, or any league. Any outlet that did solely that would lose its credibility and be seen as just a wing of the team or league PR office. That isn’t good for the league, either. Indeed, much of the best publicity comes from independent outlets. When they do praise a team or a league, it’s deserved and rare and carries more weight than a string of press releases. Leagues and teams need to realize that their desired “good press” is the most valuable when it comes from outlets that will also criticize when warranted. MLS and Sporting KC in particular appear to need to grow a thicker skin, and to stop feuding with those who own digital barrels of ink.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing.