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A strange possible first in US sports: Team fined for press release criticizing refs

The National Women’s Soccer League may have made history last week without even knowing it.

On May 14, a game between the Seattle Reign and the Portland Thorns resulted in a 1-1 draw. Play between the two teams was physical.

Just like after every game, the teams’ PR staffs wrote a match report for the team website. The reports are usually straightforward, dry recaps of the action. Not this time.

In an unusually editorialized post-game press release, the Seattle Reign took a dig at the game officials:

“The referee apparently suffered from a strange form of paralysis that prevented him from pulling a yellow card from his pocket until late in the game, despite a plethora of bodies in blue that littered the field.”

Rivals @ThornsFC, @SeattleReignFC draw 1-1. Safe to say Seattle was unhappy w/ refs:

— The Equalizer (@EqualizerSoccer) May 15, 2016

Last Tuesday, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush announced that the Seattle Reign’s general manager, coach and club were fined an undisclosed amount for the criticism of the referees.

That press release, though, may need to go into the National Soccer Hall of Fame Museum. Why? It seems to be the first press release in the history of American sports that resulted in a fine.

No one in any league office at the NWSL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL and NFL can remember a press release ever picking up a fine. The MLS didn’t respond to comment. In fact, most league officials were pretty stumped by the thought of it.

“That’s not something we keep track of,” one befuddled NHL official said. “I don’t know anybody that would know that.”

“I can’t think of an example,” an MLB official said. “I’m kind of FIFA 17 Coins glad I can’t think of anything. I’m glad I’m not drawing from experience here.”

The closest example of someone’s actions in the press box causing money news seems to be when the Rockets’ social media editor trolled the Mavericks with this tweet as Houston knocked Dallas out of last year’s playoffs.

The sender of the tweet ended up being fired for it.

Criticism of officials in sports is as common as texting while walking. And fines for “conduct detrimental to the league” are almost as common as your grandmother liking your latest Instagram.

Take Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who may, in fact, be the ultimate receiver of fines. When David Stern retired as NBA commissioner in 2014, he hit Cuban with one last $100,000 fine to bring the total amount he ever docked the Mavs owner to $1.9 million. Cuban responded to losing that $100,000 by tweeting, “I couldnt let the commish go without a proper farewell.”

So it’s no surprise that Laura Harvey, the Reign’s general manager and coach, also publicly criticized the match officials for the physical second half.

“It was ridiculous,” Harvey said postgame. “I thought the ref lost control of the game, and I think everyone should look at [forward] Bev Goebel’s face. I’m not saying that anyone went out to hurt anybody, but the reality is that when the referee doesn’t get hold of the game – like he didn’t – someone was going to get hurt. … I’m not saying it was done on purpose, but things like that can’t happen.”

Harvey was clearly upset, but the league would of course prefer she keep criticisms of the referee out of the press. The money from the fine will be donated to the League’s exclusive charitable partner: the U.S. Soccer Foundation.

Take a bow, Seattle Reign FC. It’s not even halfway through the season and your communications team is likely going to win the ESPY for “Press Release That Described What Most Fans Were Probably Thinking.” You know, if ESPN decides to create that category this year.

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