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The Royal Watch: On Craig Harrington and mishandling of communication from the club

There is so much to unpack with yesterday’s news surrounding Utah Royals FC.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinal - Houston Dash v Utah Royals FC Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Here we are again. Utah Soccer is once again dealing with ongoing issues tied to the broader toxic culture at the organization after owner Dell Loy Hansen has agreed to sell the club after accusations of racist, sexist, and belittling behavior plaguing the organization’s management. If you need more information as the team at RSL Soapbox has covered it; you can find it here.

During yesterday’s game broadcast on Twitch between Utah Royals FC and the Portland Thorns, a member of the commentary team announced that assistant coach Amy LePeilbet was now the interim coach because Craig Harrington, Utah Royals FC coach, is on administrative leave of absence, as is assistant coach Louis Lancaster.

The news caught us all off guard, and the entire NWSL media scrambled for information to find out what had happened with Harrington. It was later that Meg Linehan of The Athletic shared the information via a series of tweets.

Then, finally, official word came from the club’s press office.

Utah Royals FC Head Coach Craig Harrington and Assistant Coach Louis Lancaster have been placed on a leave of absence from team activities, including today’s match against Portland Thorns FC. In the interim, Amy LePeilbet has been named head coach.

There is so much to unpack here. First, with head coach Craig Harrington, and then with then mishandling of communication from the club.

On Craig Harrington...

When Harrington was hired back in February, there was a consensus within the league that his hiring made sense, a good fit for what Utah was trying to build, developing younger players and a winning club. In his time in Chicago, he helped the team make the playoffs both years, helping the team to a 23-12-13 record with back-to-back playoff appearances, including a trip to the NWSL Championship last season.

The vibe in Chicago was always that Craig was nice and well-liked by the players, and that players enjoyed working with him. When we heard reports yesterday that Harrington’s leave of absence was directly tied to the overall investigation into the culture in Utah, allegedly making multiple inappropriate comments of a sexual nature to staff, we were all shocked.

What I know of Harrington is from media calls, always being mindful and respectful of the work of the media, and hearing good things from Chicago, and I had been very impressed with his coaching style at the Challenge Cup, especially implementing a three-back system that worked. What’s more, Harrington expressed support for racial and gender equality.

A day later, I still feel shock and disappointment about his behavior. I won’t dehumanize Harrington, and I hope he releases his own statement owning up to his actions and apologizing to those involved, the players, club, and fans. However, the club has no choice but to part ways with Harrington after this news.

On mishandling of communication from the club...

Earlier in the day, every Utah Royals FC player tweeted a statement:

At that time, we figured it was in response to the toxic culture within the organization and the issues in the country. Little did we know that it was in response to the news to come on Harrington.

As powerful as a statement is from the players, it should have been the club who released a statement. From reports by Linehan, “there were roughly 48 hours between LePeilbet getting the nod and [Sunday’s] game.” The club had plenty of time to release a statement. Instead, it left the news in the dark until broadcast time.

And if that was not enough, post-game, it was the players (Captain Amy Rodriguez and Vero Boquete) and LePeilbet who were left to face the media to answer questions. Someone in Utah’s PR department had to know that the media would have questions on the matter. Why there was no PR representation, specifically General Manager Stephanie Lee, to field questions about Harrington is beyond me.

Yes, let’s be fair, this was likely a decision based on the legal reasons on what could be shared, but to leave players to face the media when the players themselves are not allowed to comment on the situation is not professional at all.