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Former RSL coach Mike Petke files lawsuit against club, owner

RSL head coach Mike Petke calls for a substitute player during the Real Salt Lake versus Sporting KC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, July 4, 2018.
FILE - RSL head coach Mike Petke calls for a substitute player during the Real Salt Lake versus Sporting KC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, July 4, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Petke, Real Salt Lake’s former coach who was fired after allegedly making a homophobic comment to a referee after a match, sued his former club on Tuesday claiming he is still owed $687,500 in salary.

In his 37-page lawsuit filed in 3rd District Court, Petke claims the team and its owner, Dell Loy Hansen, “broke a legally binding promise that was part of an amendment to the coach’s contract,” according to a statement released by a Texas-based public relations firm on behalf of Petke.

That amendment, the lawsuit states, would allow for Petke to return to his head coaching position after serving a two-week suspension. But because Hansen violated the contract by speaking publicly about his suspended coach, he tried to save face by pressuring Petke into resigning, the lawsuit states. When Petke refused, he was fired.

Real Salt Lake released a statement Tuesday saying, “Real Salt Lake is aware of the lawsuit filed by former head coach Mike Petke. As previously reported by RSL, Mr. Petke’s employment was terminated for cause based upon statements and actions that are unbecoming of RSL representatives, especially our head coach. The organization stands firmly behind that difficult decision.”

The club said it would have no further comment on the pending litigation.

After a game on July 24 at Rio Tinto Stadium, Petke — already frustrated by how the match was officiated — received a red card from the head referee, meaning he could be fined or suspended from future games, according to the lawsuit. Petke responded by calling the referee a name in Spanish, the lawsuit states.

Later, Petke wrote the same word on a piece of paper and then showed it to the referee as he walked down the stadium corridor, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, the word Petke used “is commonly used by soccer players and soccer fans alike to mean ‘coward’ or ‘jerk.’”

But others felt the word was a homophobic slur.

Petke was suspended for three games by Major League Soccer. RSL’s owners then imposed their own penalties, which included a two-week unpaid suspension from the team, writing a letter of apology to the referee, and attending anger management classes.

But the night before Petke’s suspension was to end, the club announced that Petke had been fired.

Petke claims in his lawsuit that Hansen “was caught on videotape improperly talking to strangers about the coach’s employment status” and that “upon recognizing the impropriety of his conversation, the owner had the team use its overwhelming power to engage in high-pressure tactics calculated to coerce the coach into publicly resigning so that the owner’s embarrassing and improper conduct could be swept under the rug.

“Despite the team’s and owner’s outrageous, intentional, and reckless conduct, the coach did not relent and agree to resign,” the lawsuit continued.

Because of that, Petke said he was fired, according to the suit.

“The owner also directed the team to execute a publicity campaign designed to damage the coach’s reputation and detrimentally impact the coach’s future job prospects in professional soccer,” the lawsuit contends.

According to a prepared statement from Petke’s attorney, Clayton Bailey of the Dallas-based firm Bailey Brauer PLLC, the former coach was “blindsided” by RSL’s decision.

“The decision was announced in a way calculated to damage his reputation, not just as a coach, but also personally. Refusing to pay the remainder of his salary is a move designed to inflict additional, unwarranted economic damage.”

“What happened here is fairly simple. RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen was recorded contradicting the agreement while speaking to another team’s fans, became embarrassed, and later fired Mike when he had no business doing so,” attorney Travis Koch of Overstreet Homar & Kuker added as part of the news release provided by Petke’s representatives.

The lawsuit contends that five days after the incident with the referee, Petke signed an agreement with RSL which “states that Petke would not be fired for his conduct and that RSL was giving him another opportunity.” The agreement, however, said that any further violations would result in his “immediate termination,” according to the lawsuit.

As late as Aug. 7, just days before Petke was to return to the team, there were text conversations between RSL’s administration and Petke’s wife talking about his return.

But during a match with the Utah Royals, Hansen was recorded on video talking to fans about Petke.

“A transcript of the video shows a fan asking whether Hansen is going to fire Petke and Hansen responds: ‘I’d like to say I might cry all the way, but we literally had a meeting today here, the GMs and everyone, kind of reviewing that. Honestly, I’m talking tomorrow to a few of our key sponsors, ... (inaudible).’

“Realizing his inappropriate conversation about Petke had been caught on tape, Hansen began to scramble for cover,” the lawsuit continued. “Because Hansen had publicly painted himself into a corner, (RSL General Manager Craig) Waibel and (RSL Executive Vice President Rob) Zarkos confirmed that Petke was going to be fired because of Hansen’s errors and that they disagreed with Petke’s upcoming firing.”

Both Waibel and Zarkos told Petke they plan to leave RSL at the end of the season because of Hansen, the lawsuit states, with Waibel adding in a message to Petke, “This is (the toughest) work environment in Major League Soccer without a doubt.”

RSL offered Petke $75,000 to resign, or be fired and receive no money, according to the lawsuit. That was followed by a conference call with Petke and RSL’s owners.

“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,” the lawsuit states.

In his lawsuit, Petke also argues that RSL knew they were getting a “fiery” and “passionate” coach when they hired him, and even signed him to a three-year contract extension after already being fined by MLS for outspoken comments. But he says he has long been an outspoken advocate and supporter of LGBTQ rights, according to the lawsuit.