Following his firing by Real Salt Lake over a homophobic tirade during a match in Utah last month, former coach Mike Petke is now suing the club for $687,500 of lost salary (a season and a half’s worth). The lawsuit, filed in the Third Judicial District Court of Salt Lake County, alleges that the club tried to force Petke to resign from his position after he was first suspended for two weeks, during which the club conducted a “process of review” that found his infraction severe enough to merit dismissal.
Petke is arguing differently, saying that he signed an amendment to his contract that stated that he would not be fired for this offense after serving his suspension. The relevant part of the amendment is included in the lawsuit:
We hold everyone in our organization—particularly the leadership—to the highest standards and expect them to treat everyone with dignity and respect. We, as a Club, should have the utmost respect for the referees, PRO, and Major League Soccer and will be working with the League to ensure that everyone in our organization treats all referees, players, coaches and fans with the dignity, respect, civility and professionalism that is consistent with our values going forward. Although we appreciate your passion and drive to win, it should never come at the expense of those values.
Any further violations of these policies will result in immediate termination for cause under your employment contract.
Beyond pointing to the amendment as reason for the invalidity of his firing, Petke is also placing the blame for the whole debacle on RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen, who he accuses of discussing the coach’s employment status “improperly” with strangers. That would violate the terms of the contract, according to Petke’s lawsuit, and so Hansen and the club allegedly switched gears and tried to get the coach to resign in exchange for a smaller payout:
In bad faith, RSL continued to use its dominant position to force Petke to submit to and accept a low-ball offer of $75,000 to resign or be fired in breach of the 2017 contract and July 2019 contract.
Petke refused and so he was eventually fired for the tirade, which featured a slew of homophobic insults in Spanish, as well as a handwritten sign that featured the same slur, per the Salt Lake Tribune. The lawsuit quite brazenly places at least some of the blame for this on Real Salt Lake as well, saying, essentially, that the club should have expected this, pointing to the fact that he was given the three-year contract after MLS had already fined him for separate comments regarding a referee decision in 2017:
For instance, in a July 2017 match between RSL and its rival Sporting Kansas City, Petke was ejected after complaining to the referee. In a well-publicized postgame interview, Petke asked RSL’s Trey Fitz-Gerald to distribute color printouts of blown-up still frames showing the referees’ failure to call a blatant foul committed by a Sporting Kansas City player who put a RSL player in a headlock while trying to prevent a breakaway goal that would have resulted in RSL winning the match. Petke also stated that RSL’s players were frequently targeted by bigger-name clubs without penalty because RSL is a small market team with a lower-than-average payroll.
25. Afterward, MLS fined Petke $3,000.00 for his impassioned postgame comments.
26. Petke’s outspokenness in support of protecting his players and the club engendered fan support. And at least one RSL executive told Petke that his conduct benefitted the team in many respects, including bolstering its presence and follower count on social media. Moreover, Hansen was pleased with Petke because Hansen had never had a coach who exhibited the passion Petke had for the team.
It doesn’t take much to see the difference between angry comments about a referee mistake in the heat of the moment, and a rant featuring an infamously homophobic slur, but the lawsuit is banking on this “they knew he was passionate” defense anyway.
Read the full lawsuit below:
CORRECTION (7:10 p.m.):The match where Petke’s tirade occurred was in Utah, not Mexico. This has been corrected above.