Is Major League Soccer selling its soul?

Posted by Jeff Carlisle



No doubt, there was plenty of backslapping taking place at MLS headquarters on Tuesday. After all, it's not often that the league receives the kind of investment that Manchester City and the New York Yankees made, as the two teams became owners of New York City FC, the league's 20th team.

While Commissioner Don Garber refused to state for the record on Tuesday's conference call what the expansion fee would be, it's believed to be in the neighborhood of US$100 million. The Commissioner, quite rightly, called the news, "a transformational moment".

-- Carlisle: Soriano's vision
-- Davis: Garber's legacy rests on NYC
-- Manchester City's New York plan
-- How will NYCFC work?
-- Carlisle: More questions than answers

So will this be remembered as the day that MLS made a quantum leap forward or one where it sold its soul?
From a business perspective, having Manchester City and the Yankees on board will give MLS a massive boost, especially when one considers the marketing muscle of both clubs.

"We think we have a tremendous opportunity with the synergies that are going to come from New York City FC and Manchester City," said Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano during an exclusive interview with ESPN.com. "And we have the best partner you could think of, the Yankees."

Yankees President Randy Levine added: "We think this is a win-win combination. They know soccer. We know how to run New York. We both have tremendous commercial reach. Our brands are well known throughout the world."

But what is taking some of the shine off the announcement are some issues surrounding Manchester City's owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Sheikh Mansour is a member of the Abu Dhabi Royal family, and is the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. According to Forbes, as of 2009 Sheikh Mansour was estimated to have a net worth of nearly $5 billion. The entire family's holdings are estimated at $150 billion.

It's not Sheikh Mansour's wealth that is problematic, especially now that MLS and NYC FC appear to be backing away from a proposal to build a 25,000-seat soccer stadium in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. Rather, it's the human rights record in the UAE. The U.S. State Department's 2012 Report on Human Rights Practices detailed how the country makes arbitrary arrests and criminalizes same-sex activity.

It is the UAE's maltreatment of its LGBT community that has left MLS open to charges of hypocrisy. The league has launched a public service campaign titled "Don't Cross the Line" in which fans are encouraged to practice inclusiveness regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

The league has been very vocal in trying to lure former Columbus Crew midfielder Robbie Rogers, who announced that he is gay last February and then retired, back into the league. It has also taken the unusual step of suspending players for the on-field use of gay slurs. It's almost as if the league is saying, "Don’t cross the line, unless you have $100 million".

Of course, it would not be the first time that an MLS owner's personal views were at odds with the league's policy of inclusiveness towards the LGBT community. Phil Anschutz, whose company AEG owns the Los Angeles Galaxy and has a majority stake in the Houston Dynamo, has funded anti-gay initiatives.

Sheikh Mansour's case is more complicated, however. Certainly, there is a case to be made of separating the man from the country, or at least the club from the country. Technically, it is Manchester City who are the majority owners, and the deal to bring them aboard is very much the result of the personal relationship between Soriano and Garber, who have been working towards this kind of arrangement ever since Soriano's days with Barcelona.

Manchester City has also engaged in plenty of good works, both back in England and in New York, including the building of a soccer field on a rooftop in Spanish Harlem. That was the message being driven home by Soriano on Tuesday.

"I can only speak with authority about the record of our club, Manchester City, and our owner," said Soriano. "With the ownership's encouragement, our club has continued to be a model for anti-discrimination and fair play across many important issues, in England and everywhere."

But the fact that Sheikh Mansour is the Deputy Prime Minister of the UAE, not to mention the severity of the human rights issues in question, makes it more difficult for the league to distance itself between their stated aims of inclusiveness and the views of one of its owners. That didn't stop MLS from trying.

"We are the league for a new America and our stand against any kind of discrimination has really almost been second to none," said Garber. "So clearly, any owner that comes into MLS, whether it's an existing owner or a new owner, is going to be living to those standards. And we're not just comfortable with Manchester City and their ownership.

"When we looked at what they did in Manchester and looked at the support they have, when we look at the stances that they've taken as it relates to any types of discrimination, they've been a leader in the Premier League for some of the anti-racism programs that have been going on there. We were not [only] not concerned about it, but we were proud about them coming into MLS."

While the league's stance against discrimination is commendable, Garber's explanation doesn't go far enough. Would Garber give the same explanation to Robbie Rogers if/when he returns to the league, or the league's LGBT fans?

Obviously, the policies of the UAE weren't enough to prevent a deal from being made. As so often happens in cases like this, business comes first. But the issue could bleed into NYC FC's attempt to build a stadium. Back when Flushing Meadows-Corona Park was the presumed venue for a new stadium, New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who is gay, indicated he wouldn't be opposed to Sheikh Mansour purchasing land at another site. But he was clear in his dismay at the policies in the UAE.

"It's a monarchy, and [Sheikh Mansour] is the second guy in charge," said Dromm. "This policy of executing or chemically castrating gays, they're responsible for that. There's no way around it. I just don't think the city of New York should be involved in doing business with somebody like that."

New York City Comptroller John Liu has made it his office's policy to do business only with companies supportive of the LGBT community. His office also invests its pension funds only in companies that support LGBT rights, while withdrawing funds from those that don't.

"We are, in general, very concerned with these human rights issues [in the UAE]," he said prior to Tuesday's announcement.

As the process to build a stadium moves forward, it's likely that these issues will still be of concern to New York politicians. The same should be true for MLS.

ESPN Conversations