Major League Ultimate has made a huge mistake. Three days ago, Brandon “Muffin” Malecek posted a negative review of the Innova Pulsar, MLU’s official disc, on a friend’s blog. 24 hours later, it was removed without comment. Many initially suspected that it was due to pressure from the MLU front office, but the league never made a statement.
Yesterday, Julie Eagle, Malecek’s fiancée, reported that the Boston Whitecaps player had been suspended without pay for this weekend’s game against the NY Rumble and that the blog entry had been ordered to be removed by MLU officials. A Whitecaps official announced this morning that the suspension has been reduced to a half game.
Regardless of the reduced suspension, presumably in response to a strongly negative reaction from the Ultimate community, this is a very poor decision from the MLU. This could alienate players, possibly making them less likely to play in the MLU in the future. Even more likely is that the MLU’s censorship of Malecek will not do what it is intended to do: protect their sponsor. Rather, their decision to stifle Malecek’s opinion will prove to be a major barrier to Innova’s attempts to compete with Ultrastar in the Ultimate market.
There are still a lot of unknowns in this situation. There has still been no comment from the MLU front office. The wording of Malecek’s contract has not been released. It’s unclear what role (if any) the Innova leadership played in this decision. However, the current information seems to point toward a serious failure at MLU headquarters, which will likely hurt their relationship with players and sponsors.
The decision to suspend Malecek could create a dangerous atmosphere of distrust between the league and its players. Eagle wrote, “There is nothing in the contract addressing players’ comments on sponsor products,” presumably having seen Malecek’s contract. If this is true, this could set a precedent that players will not want to live with. If the MLU decides it has the right to suspend players for “offenses” that are neither violations of the rules nor breaches of contract, then players will never be totally safe to speak or act. While it’s fine for a league to exert control over its players, the areas it controls must be defined, written down, and agreed upon by all parties.
Something that MLU President Jeff Snader would do well to remember is that his is the youngest of three currently active leagues. Players don’t have to play for him. If he decides he is able to suspend players based on unwritten rules, I don’t think many of them will stick around. Given the choice between a league that has this power and a league that plays by the rules, I know I would prefer to play in the latter.
Now, one might argue that the AUDL doesn’t play by the rules either. After all, Snader and company left the league after the disastrous Constitution/Rampage debacle last year in which the league sued two teams because of fears that they would sue over a possible breach of contract. There was an immediate outcry from fans on the Internet and quiet, unofficial grumblings from players in private conversations. As a result, the AUDL completely overhauled its organization, ousting Moore and strengthening its commitment to its teams with revenue-sharing agreements and more specific non-compete clauses.
Former AUDL President Josh Moore was looked down on by Ultimate players for his mercenary approach to growing the sport. Early reactions to the alleged suspension have made similar attacks on the MLU leadership. While the Malecek incident is on a much smaller scale, Snader should avoid similar criticisms.
With the AUDL expanding to the West Coast (and probably adding a team in Boston) next summer, Snader needs to show a commitment to his players if he wants them to stay in the MLU. The AUDL did it by showing Moore the door and instituting revenue sharing. Snader should begin by not censoring and suspending Malecek.
Just as important will be the effect of the suspension on Innova’s relationship with the MLU and with Ultimate players in general. If it turns out that Snader was coerced by Innova to suppress Malecek’s criticism, Ultimate players will abandon the disc. As Ultiworld founder Charlie Eisenhood reported in March, Wham-o was forced out of the Ultimate market because they did not pay sufficient attention to the desires of Ultimate players until it was too late.
Whether or not Innova was a part of the decision to censor Malecek, it may come across that they don’t care about what players think. Innova is a relative newcomer in a market that Discraft has dominated since before most current college players were born. They need to do everything in their power to win over Ultimate players. Showing a desire to improve is a good way to do so; silencing criticism is not. This censorship is bad news for Innova.
Because of the negative sentiment Malecek’s suspension will create for Innova, it will be even worse for the MLU if Malecek was censored without instruction from the sponsor. It might be the case that Snader and his colleagues decided to censor Malecek’s post without the go-ahead from Innova. If this is true, Snader could have just created a reputation for acting rashly, without thinking about the potential harm he could do to his sponsors. If so, fewer Ultimate suppliers will be willing to work with the MLU, perhaps choosing to sponsor the AUDL or USAU.
It’s true that I’m speculating about how Malecek was censored, but the point is that, given the current information, the decision to do so looks like a no-win situation for the MLU, especially if they have chosen to suspend Malecek. Doing so will hurt Innova, possibly endangering the league’s relationship with other sponsors. It will set a precedent that gives the MLU extraordinary power over its players, creating an atmosphere of distrust. With the AUDL about to expand into MLU markets and USAU building a bond with ESPN, the MLU cannot damage either its relationship with its players or with the institutions that fund it. Censoring and suspending Malecek will do both.