Former RSL coach Mike Petke sues his former team, says he is owed nearly $700K

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Former Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke walks the sidelines during MLS soccer action between Real Salt Lake and Atlanta United at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Friday, May 24, 2019.

Former Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke filed a lawsuit Tuesday against his former team, seeking nearly $700,000 that he claims RSL still owes him after he says they breached his contract.

Petke was fired after 18 months on the job after he used a homophobic slur in Spanish toward referees after a July 24 Leagues Cup game against Tigres UANL.

His attorneys now argue in court papers that RSL violated its contract with Petke by firing him at the end of a two-week unpaid suspension. They allege that a written contract amendment that Petke signed expressly stipulated that future infractions could result in his immediate dismissal for cause, but RSL ended up firing him as head coach the day before that suspension concluded.

“The amendment was clear about what club leaders expected of Mike. He was following that amendment to the letter and looking forward to returning to his team when he was blindsided by ownership,” said Petke’s attorney, Clayton Bailey. “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.”

Petke’s attorneys argue that RSL now owes him pay for the rest of 2019 and all of 2020 — an estimated $687,500. Petke is also asking for a judge to order that RSL pay his attorney fees and punitive damages.

The lawsuit also outlines an option that RSL ownership had offered to Petke to accept $75,000 and resign from the coaching job. He opted not to accept, and was fired in August after he missed three games due to his suspension — a punishment handed down from Major League Soccer. He also was fined $25,000.

RSL responded to the suit on Tuesday afternoon.

“Real Salt Lake is aware of the lawsuit filed by former head coach Mike Petke," the club said in a news release. "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.”

In the 40-page lawsuit, Petke gives his version of events of his controversial actions surrounding the July game against Tigres. Even before the game, frustrations and irritations were mounting, his attorneys wrote, after RSL received notice of rules changes that would have "a material impact" on how the contest would be played.

Then, near the end of the game, a cat ran onto the field and disrupted play. Although the cat at one point appeared to “flick the ball,” the lawsuit states, a referee failed to blow a whistle and stop play.

"Because there was no whistle to stop play, the Tigres player continued driving the ball toward the goal and took a shot that missed the goal and went out of bounds," the lawsuit states. "Instead of giving the ball to RSL for a goal kick — standard procedure when the opposing team kicks the ball out of play wide of the goal — the referee gave possession of the ball back to Tigres at the spot where the cat entered the field, granting Tigres an unexplained second bite at the apple."

Petke claims this decision impacted the outcome of the game, but he did not initially intend to speak with the referees about it. That changed when he saw his RSL players arguing with referees.

It was at that point when Petke referred to the referee as a Spanish word that begins with a “P,” the lawsuit states, which he claims is commonly used by soccer fans and players that means “coward” or “jerk.”

"Petke also used the Spanish word because [the referee] is Panamanian and speaks Spanish," the lawsuit states, "and Petke wanted the referee to understand he was being called a coward for his actions, which made Petke feel as if RSL had been cheated."

Afterward, Petke left the field and went to his office. He found a piece of paper and pen, wrote the "P" word on it and then held up the handwritten note to the referee.

Petke received backlash and condemnation for his remarks, though, after groups like Equality Utah called the word "racist" and "homophobic."

But in his lawsuit, Petke pushed back on that interpretation, saying it has multiple meanings in Spanish but is commonly used to suggest someone is a coward, like shouting “chicken” in the United States.

Petke argues in his lawsuit that he has a “strong belief in equal rights for all,” and included a photo of himself sitting in a stadium paying tribute to the victims of a June 2016 mass shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Florida. The former coach said he strongly supports the LGBTQ community and is not homophobic. After his firing, several RSL players voiced their support for Petke and also said they do not feel he is homophobic.

Five days after the Tigres game, MLS handed down its punishment on July 29: Petke was suspended for two weeks, ordered to mandatory anger management counseling and had to give written apologies to two MLS officials and four referees who worked the match.

A crumpled piece of paper titled “Violation of Club Policy” attached to the lawsuit detailed that Petke lost more than $18,000 in salary, $540 in car and phone allowances and more than $19,000 that was withheld during the suspension.

The lawsuit states that on the same day, Petke and RSL amended his contract. This included the new provision, Petke's lawyers say, that he "would not be fired unless he committed another infraction in the future."

But Petke claims that all changed when a video surfaced of RSL owner Dell Loy Hansen speaking to fans about possibly firing Petke. The video details Hansen saying his fan base was split on whether Petke should keep his job or not — “millenials” wanted him out, but older fans thought he should stay.

“I’ve got two generations in this whole thing,” Hansen says, “so it’s an interesting conversation. Our point is we’re weighing it, but at the end, once it’s all in, it still comes down to our values.”

Petke said RSL responded by pushing him to take a $75,000 buyout and quit, but he refused to do.

And after he was fired, Petke alleges that RSL and Hansen made negative statements about him in media interviews claiming he lacked certain morals and values.

But Petke further claims in his lawsuit that RSL knew he was a "fiery" player and coach who was outspoken and passionate. That's what endeared him to fans and players, he says.

He has a history of losing his temper, particularly toward referees, and being punished for it by MLS during his RSL tenure. Since arriving to the club in 2017, he served a total of three separate suspensions, including the one that ultimately led to his firing.

In July 2017, he was ejected from a game against Sporting Kansas City after yelling at the fourth official. He later printed out photos of what upset him during that game and asked a team official to distribute them to reporters in the media room. He served a one-game suspension for criticizing the referees and was fined $3,000.

The next year, also in July, he was ejected from a game against Minnesota and strongly criticized the referees in a postgame rant, during which he said, “Fine me. I don't care anymore. You know, no other coach in this league steps up a little more than they should. I'm going to. So drain my bank account. I don't give a s--- anymore.”

After the 2018 incident, Petke was suspended two games and fined $10,000.

Along with breach of contract, Petke is accusing RSL of intentionally inflicting emotional distress and defamation, among other claims.

No court date has been immediately set.