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'Appalled, disgusted but quite honestly not surprised,' players take a stand against Dell Loy Hansen

Posted at 10:24 PM, Aug 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-28 00:24:19-04

SALT LAKE CITY — On Thursday morning, scarcely 12 hours after players across MLS stood together in protest and chose not to play their scheduled matches in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen shared his own strong statement.

He was not in support of the players.

Speaking to Salt Lake City radio station X96, one of several Utah radio stations that Hansen owns, the real estate magnate described the players’ decision not to play as feeling “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.”

“We’re all sitting here at an organization trying to build support and love around a team that supports the city. All I can say is they supported other issues nationally,” said Hansen. “They clearly did not support our city or organization. That’s fairly clear.”

Later Thursday afternoon, the radio station’s YouTube channel deleted the day’s recording. The X96 Radio from Hell podcast for August 27 did not include Hansen’s original interview.

Less than two hours after that audio was deleted, Hansen made an appearance on RSL’s flagship station, ESPN 700, and attempted to walk back his emotionally-charged comments from earlier in the day.

“Sometimes in my pain, I am very poetic,” he said.

Hansen’s comments may have come as a surprise to some, but they were anything but for long-time RSL employee Andy Williams. To Williams, who joined Salt Lake as a player during its inaugural season in 2005 and served as the club’s head scout from his retirement in 2011 until he was furloughed in April, the comments are simply the latest in a long line of racist behavior from Hansen, who also owns the USL’s Real Monarchs and NWSL’s Utah Royals.

“That’s just how he is,” said Williams, who is Black. “He’s a f*****g racist, to be honest. I’ve been in situations where it’s like (former LA Clippers owner) Donald Sterling. He says something, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, what did he just say?’ It’s Donald Sterling part two. It’s just unbelievable. It’s crazy how he doesn’t see that the stuff that he says affects people.”

Williams went on to describe several of those situations.

According to Williams, he, Hansen and several other members of RSL’s front office traveled from Salt Lake City to Dallas to see the club’s academy teams compete in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy playoffs on Sunday, June 26, 2016.

The night before, the RSL first team had lost 2-0 to FC Dallas in MLS play. While walking the fields at the USSDA playoffs, Hansen, Williams and the rest of the RSL front-office contingent came across Kellyn Acosta, a Black FC Dallas player. Then-RSL General Manager Craig Waibel introduced Hansen to Acosta, then 21, who had scored a goal in Dallas’ victory over RSL the previous night.

“Waibel said, ‘Hey, Dell Loy, this is Kellyn Acosta, one of the guys who scored against us last night,’” recalled Williams. “Kellyn said hello, and the first comment that Dell Loy made was something like, ‘Hey Craig, when are we gonna lynch this guy?’ Kellyn was right there, he said this right in front of him. I just turned around and walked away, and left the conversation… I just walked away. I couldn’t even deal with it.”

Williams’ account was backed up by Acosta’s agent at the time, Daren Flitcroft, who witnessed the incident. Flitcroft said that the comment — and particularly how nonchalant Hansen was in saying it — came as a “shock.” Acosta told The Athletic on Thursday that he recalls watching games with Flitcroft, but did not remember the specific incident. Acosta emphasized that he believed Flitcroft’s recollection of the interaction.

It was not the only time Hansen made a questionable comment in front of club employees. A year or two before the incident in Dallas, Williams was with the club’s coaching staff, which at that point was helmed by Jeff Cassar. Williams, the coaching staff and the club’s equipment manager, Kevin Harter, were getting into a car when they were approached by Hansen and his then-wife. Hansen called out to Harter, who is of Middle Eastern descent, about a dispute that had arisen between Harter and an intern on the athletic training staff. At some point during his conversation with Harter, Williams said, Hansen used the n-word.

“He runs up to (Harter), and is like ‘Hey, I have a beef with you. You can’t be doing this, you can’t be doing that,’ and all of a sudden, n-word drops,’” said Williams. “His wife was like, ‘Dell Loy, you can’t say that.’ And everybody looked at me, and I’m just like, ‘What? What did I just hear?” And then he said it again.”

Williams said Hansen didn’t direct the anti-black slur toward anyone in particular. A second source confirmed his description of events. Williams emphasized how casual it sounded coming out of his mouth.

“I’m not sure how the sentence went to be honest, I wasn’t listening too closely, but I know 100 percent that he said it.”

Hansen again made racist comments during contract negotiations with Albert Rusnak, RSL’s star designated player. Rusnak is white.

During those negotiations, Rusnak and his agent Aidy Ward, a Black man who founded British-based agency Colossal Sports and represents players like Man City’s Raheem Sterling and Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, were speaking to each other in English when Hansen interrupted.

“He was like, ‘Is that how you speak African?’” Hansen asked Rusnak and Ward, according to a source with direct knowledge of the conversation and Williams, who was not in the room for the comment.

Rusnak explained to Hansen that he is Slovakian, but both the player and his agent left the negotiation believing Hansen made his comment because Ward is Black. Rusnak later signed a multi-year deal that paid him $2 million in guaranteed money in 2019.

Former RSL defender Aaron Maund, who played for the team from 2013-2017 and is now with the Charlotte Independence in USL, told The Athletic of another incident involving himself, his family and Hansen. Maund, who is Black, didn’t remember the exact year, but he said he missed an RSL home game due to a foot injury that had relegated him to wheeling around in a stand-up scooter.

He watched the game from one of the suites at Rio Tinto Stadium, then entered an elevator with his family, who were visiting from out of town, to leave the facility after the match.

Upon going into the elevator, which was public, Maund put up his hood to maintain a measure of anonymity among fans that had climbed aboard. Hansen entered shortly after.

“I scooted onto the elevator, my family is with me and it was a public elevator, a lot of the fans were piling in so I threw my hood on to be a little bit incognito,” he said. “So I’m kind of standing in the back and Dell Loy came onto the elevator, so I took my hood off and said hello. And he looked back at me and said, ‘Oh my God, I thought you were a thug.’ And my whole family just whipped their heads around and looked at him, and I just kind of gave them the eyes like, ‘He doesn’t even know.’ It’s not even worth having that kind of conversation, because those kinds of things I had seen, those kinds of microaggressions, I had seen 1,000 times from him.”

Williams said that there has basically been no contact between him, General manager Elliot Fall, assistant GM Tony Beltran, technical director Dan Egner or executive vice president of soccer operations Rob Zarkos since he was furloughed. He said he reached out to Fall around 10 days ago but hadn’t heard back as of Thursday morning. He doesn’t expect to return to the club as an employee, particularly after speaking on-the-record about his experiences with Hansen. He also said that he never elevated any of the incidents to the club’s human resources staff and that he was unaware if anyone ever notified the league of them.

“You’re working, you just throw it under the f*****g rug and you’re like ‘Whatever. Oh, well,’” Williams said. “If no one else is going to say anything, I’m not going to say anything. I’m the only Black guy in the front office, what am I going to say? If they’re not saying anything, who am I to say anything? Everyone always says in the aftermath, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe he said that,’ but you can go down the list of things he’s said about coaches, players, all that stuff. At a certain point, you just roll your eyes.”

Williams made clear that he thinks MLS should remove Hansen, who bought into the team as a minority partner in 2009 before purchasing full control of the club from founder Dave Checketts early in 2013.

“It’s sad, and MLS needs to just move away from this owner,” said Williams. “I tweeted it 10 minutes before you called: Donald Sterling part two. Hands down. He doesn’t care.”

After this story’s publication, the MLS Players’ Association released a statement calling the events reported as “sickening.”

“The MLSPA calls upon MLS to immediately suspend Hansen and conduct a thorough investigation,” the statement reads. “If the allegations are substantiated, he must be forced to sell the team.”

Major League Soccer followed up with their own statement not long afterward.

“We are deeply concerned about the allegations made in a report published this evening concerning language used by and the conduct of Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen,” it reads. “Major League Soccer has zero tolerance for this type of language or conduct and will immediately commence an investigation.”

Later on Thursday, the NWSL released a statement saying Hansen’s actions are “shocking and run counter to everything the NWSL stands for.” The league will also begin an investigation.

Hansen’s radio comments immediately sparked outrage from RSL supporters and beyond — notably, Toronto FC and U.S. men’s national team forward Jozy Altidore and Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Altidore tweeted that Hansen “needs to sell the team” and added that he’s “involved in a group that’s ready to purchase it.” Mitchell, who has attended several RSL home matches during his time in Utah, also said Hansen should sell the club. In his second radio interview on Thursday, Hansen said he spoke with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and apologized to league officials and fellow owners. He had not spoken to RSL’s players outside of goalkeeper Zac MacMath, who he said he had a conversation with Thursday morning after going on the radio.

In the NWSL, Hansen has been a key figure for the growth of the league, including his organizations’ hosting of the Challenge Cup, the league’s summer return-to-play tournament. His 2017 purchase of the FC Kansas City, with a subsequent move to Utah and rebranding as Utah Royals FC, helped stabilize the league during a period of uncertainty. His investment into the Royals set new standards; Utah’s locker room and training facilities and player housing and benefits are among the best in the league. Within a matter of hours of Hansen’s comments, one supporter’s group for Utah Royals FC had already promised to disband itself.

Within the RSL locker room, Hansen’s controversial radio comments were not entirely unexpected. There were rumblings among players Thursday morning that Hansen was going to be on one of his local radio stations, and the RSL owner did not speak with the players Wednesday night after they decided with LAFC to not play as part of a broader, league-wide protest against racial injustice and police brutality. There was a sense of inevitability amongst the players that Hansen might take the controversial tone when speaking on why the players decided to not take the field.

RSL center back Nedum Onuoha has been the club’s most outspoken player on issues of systemic racism. The 33-year-old former Manchester City player signed with RSL in September 2018 and has taken on a leadership role within the club as well as in the MLS’s Black Players for Change group. When he heard Hansen’s interview, Onuoha was stunned.

“For him to come out and say what he said, he just completely missed the point. I just feel like, in this instance, with so many things going on in 2020, it’s almost like there’s a cry for help but a cry for people who have significant power, who can be able to help to make things better. This is a quest for equality,” Onuoha told The Athletic. “It’s not a quest for solely black people to just have more money than everybody else. It’s a literal cry for equality in whichever way we can find it.”

Legendary Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who played for the team from 2007 until he retired after last season, echoed Onuoha’s sentiments in comments emailed to The Athletic.

“Appalled, disgusted but quite honestly not surprised,” he wrote. “These players are taking a stand for what they believe is right. They have a platform to be able to speak and bring awareness for the world to see an issue that is far more pressing and important than any kind of revenue right now. The lack of compassion for the players and their experience feels a lot like that old saying, ‘Shut up and play.’ To take that position, right now with everything going on in the world, is exactly why players and organizations need to take a stand. These players and the staff should be treated like family in a way. His actions and statements show that he is more concerned with dollars than creating an inclusive and supportive culture. Before talking about the community, he needs to understand that Black lives are a part of our community. The conversation shouldn’t be about 5,000 fans in attendance or threatening to fire more employees, it should be about reform, equality, fighting racism, ending police brutality and listening to people of color on how we can help in change.”

Maund had similar thoughts.

“I know that if I was in that locker room, I would be having conversations about for sure not wanting to play for this guy ever again,” he said. “It’s getting to a point where when you’re that direct in your comments, it comes to a point where players are being forced to choose what side of history they want to be on. … I think this is definitely a situation where a higher power needs to step in and make this a comfortable work environment for all.”

Onouha said he’s never experienced any uncomfortable interactions, racist or not, with Hansen. The RSL center back added, “He has his preferred people and I guess I’m not one of them. I try not to spend too much time with him, to be honest.”

Hansen also indicated in his interview that the players’ decision to not play on Wednesday means that he will not open Rio Tinto Stadium for any future RSL home games this season. The club distributed a limited number of tickets to Wednesday’s postponed match. Because the club won’t generate ticket revenue from future home games, Hansen said that the club will have to lay people off. RSL was the first MLS club to furlough employees during the pandemic when it did so in April. Hansen also said that the players’ decision “took the wind out of” his sails in terms of how much money he wants to invest in the team in the future.

“Knowing the reputation he has around the league, I wouldn’t be surprised if MLS steps in after his comments,” wrote Rimando. “I don’t see how any player in the league would want to play for an owner who doesn’t support their players. I know I wouldn’t be lacing up my boots. That’s one way to budget your investment in the team, I suppose.”

MLS commissioner Don Garber and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird issued statements on Thursday regarding Hansen’s comments on the radio earlier in the day. RSL declined to comment via a spokesperson.

“I appreciate Dell Loy Hansen’s efforts to build the sport of soccer in Utah, his commitment to MLS, the NWSL and the USL, as well as the game at the youth level has been significant,” Garber’s statement read in part. “However, I strongly disagree with the comments he made today and the way they were expressed. They do not reflect the views of MLS.

Baird also provided a statement on Thursday. “Dell Loy Hansen’s remarks regarding player protests are in conflict with the values of the NWSL. Black Lives Matter, racism in this country is real, and we all must continue the critically important work of addressing racial injustice in our country.”

On a night where most of the sporting world came together for one uniting cause, Onuoha said it’s now being overshadowed by Hansen’s complaints about money and disappointing fans.

“This is a game and we’re sorry you’ve not managed to make this amount of money, but I personally do not give sympathy to billionaires,” Onuoha said. “A billionaire white man in America criticizing people who are trying to rally around in need the most in this country? It doesn’t add up. So when I saw it, my initial reaction was I was furious. My next reaction was just after it settled in. I thought to myself, ‘Why am I here when the person at the top doesn’t stand for what I believe in?’ And what I believe in isn’t a radical thing to believe in, yet we’re being criticized for having those views. It was a tough morning for me because I genuinely asked myself, ‘Why am I still here? Do I want to be here? And what am I going to do next?’ If this is the person who’s in control, what chance do we have?

The NWSL is in between sets of games, after Hansen and the Utah Royals hosted the NWSL Challenge Cup earlier this summer, but before the return of matches for the rest of the fall. Royals rookie Tziarra King tweeted in support of her RSL counterparts on Thursday afternoon. “For (Dell Loy Hansen) to take this very real situation for the black community, and try to turn it around and make it about himself is completely unacceptable,” she said.

The MLS constitution does allow the league to terminate an ownership agreement “on its own initiative if, by a two-thirds majority vote of the board, an operator/investor is determined to have failed to act in the best interests of the league. If so, it must still pay such operator/investor fair market value for its operating rights and ownership interest.”

Coincidentally, the MLS constitution was made public as part of a lawsuit filed by former Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke against the club, claiming breach of contract. Petke was fired after using a homophobic slur toward officials in a Leagues Cup game against Mexican side Tigres.

Upon firing Petke, RSL released an official statementthat read: “As an organization, it is vital that everyone, particularly our leadership, reflects and embodies our core values and the values of our community, treating all people with respect, civility and professionalism. Moreover, throughout our 15-year history, we have championed diversity, acceptance and inclusion throughout our organization, our stadiums and our community. This is a responsibility that we take very seriously.”