MLS Soccer Journalists and the MLS Labour Dispute

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There aren’t many professional American soccer journalists, so when they move digs, it tends to create a stir in our little media teapot over here. The latest announcement is from Steve Davis, a veteran whose work I admire, who has a new role at Sports Illustrated, leaving ESPN Soccernet.

The latter has practically abandoned American soccer, with SI beefening up its presence stateside.

At the same time, with MLS’ new league website about to launch, what’s now MLSSoccer.com continues to attract talent: in the past few months, they’ve hired as full-time staffers Offside Rules blogger Shawn Francis, Goal.com’s Greg Lalas and Jonah Freedman from Sports Illustrated.

Others like Greg Seltzer from No Short Corners will be writing for the site, and so will Steve Davis, as he tells us on his blog. Many American soccer journalist have and will continue to freelance for MLS’ official site.

All this is happening while MLS is embroiled in its worst-ever labour dispute, with the league on the verge of a strike.

MLS Communications is, of course, pretending none of this is happening; if you relied on their daily MLS Newsstand email service for your fix of MLS news, with the text of a dozen+ articles on the league included, you wouldn’t know a strike was even a  vague possibility. The MLS Insider blog has more about David Beckham’s injury than about the Collective Bargaining Agreement dispute, which hasn’t received a mention this week.

I can’t blame MLS staffers for this at all. Don Garber has been pretty clear that MLS employees are not to talk about the strike in public. Any communications regarding the CBA are presumably vetted by Garber’s dog, cat and mother  before going out.

Yet doesn’t this present a problem when many of the country’s best soccer journalists now work for MLS, just when we need insightful coverage the most?

And how does this impact on MLS’ hardy string of freelancers? Steve Davis’ first column at Sports Illustrated is on the biggest story in American soccer, the strike. It’s a good piece, fair and objective. Still, he takes a jab at the players (not for the first time):

“This is truly a case of guys who could make more money going out and getting a job, but they’re trying to live out the dream,” Keller told The Associated Press last Friday.

He may be right, but it may not matter. In the chill of national recession, the public may not be in the mood to hear about dreams — particularly not the 10 percent of population currently unemployed. Paying bills is the here-and-now. Chasing dreams is a luxury that’s off the table for many Americans today.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that opinion, nor do I think that Davis would colour his thoughts due to his work writing for MLS’ website as well. But it still strikes an odd chord for me; I personally would not write at an independent publication about another company that periodically pays me to work for them on a labour dispute they are involved in, even as a freelancer.  At least, definitely not without saying up front I also take a few dollars here and there from them. I trust Steve’s writing and integrity as a long-time reader of his work, but many fans at Sports Illustrated coming across the piece won’t even know he also writes for MLS.

Naturally, freelancers have to make money to make a living, and the MLS site is increasingly where the pay checks are being cut.  Maybe there isn’t a problem until there’s a problem: when obvious bias creeps into reporting.

I’m not really worried about a guy like Steve Davis; judging from his columns, he’s not likely to start pandering to anyone anytime soon. But in the broader sweep of things, with newspapers cutting back coverage of all sports and content increasingly moving in-house, where are the genuinely outside perspectives on MLS going to come from?  You might tell me the blogosphere, and you might be right, but it ain’t easy to find the good coverage out here in the sticks, is it?


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