Soccer reporter banned for doing journalism

Laurel Pfahler had been covering her city’s Major League Soccer team, FC Cincinnati, since before it was a Major League Soccer team. Her coverage ended when the team informed her that her credentials that allow her into the stadium on game day would not be honored.

”This is bad…bad for journalism and bad for sports fans and sets a terrible precedent,” she told me.

The problem started with a Tweet, which Pfahler posted to clarify a detail in a story about Álvaro Barreal, a player who was transferred to a club in Brazil. The story initially appeared in Queen City Press, a site she maintains through Patreon, a popular platform used by independent creators. The Tweet quoted Barreal saying he enjoyed his time in Cincinnati. It should not have been earth-shattering, but it indicated that Pfahler reached out to the player after he was done at FC Cincinnati.

She felt like she couldn’t lie low given that her readers would see that she suddenly stopped giving reports from practice sessions and games. She posted a statement explaining her absence, which angered the team further.

“Pfahler has failed to act in accordance with the standards and practices of the Society of Professional Journalists and the MLS Notice of Credentials Use Conditions,” said a statement issued by the team on March 17th. “She refuses to accept responsibility for her actions despite multiple conversations and attempts at working together to forge a productive relationship between her and the club.”

The statement goes on to say that no details would be released out of “professional decorum.”

“Use conditions” are printed on every MLS credential and are common for sports organizations. In other statements the team implied that Pfahler violated section 12 of these conditions, which is there to protect the league and team copyrights over broadcasts.

However, as reported by outlets like, the reasons given to Pfahler had nothing to do with violating the conditions but was over going to sources outside of those approved by the team. In addition to the story about the player transfer, Pfahler wrote a piece late last season regarding Cincinnati and US national team defender Matt Miazga, who confronted referees after a match. Lacking team sources, she reported the incident using a report from the Pro Soccer Referees Association, the union that represents referees.

Going to outside sources should not be regarded as a violation; it is necessary for journalism. Anything else is public relations.

The whole situation, as Pfahler said, is bad for journalism and for sports. Unfortunately, it has not been unique in recent years. The website Awful Announcing pointed to Luca Evans of the Orange County Register being suspended for asking the wrong question at a USC Trojans press conference as an example of this being a growing trend.

Pfahler has been getting support from around the soccer and journalism community. Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Jason Williams, who himself suffered a similar ban as a college reporter, wrote a scathing column.

“Revoking a professional journalist’s credentials is petty, unnecessary and a bad look for a public-facing organization,” Williams said in a piece appearing on March 14th. “I’ve heard enough from all sides. And nothing I’ve heard called for FC Cincinnati to take the extraordinarily rare step for an American professional sports franchise to ban a reporter.”

Williams pointed out that the suspension leaves only one full-time reporter covering FC Cincinnati.

She’s also gotten support from the North American Soccer Reporters (I am a member). The group has not only publicized her situation but has also had meetings with Major League Soccer to restore her credentials.

Support also came from the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, the group whose standards were invoked to criticize Pfahler. The group took issue with FC Cincinnati using their name.

“The SPJ Code of Ethics is a time-honored set of voluntary guidelines for professional reporters,” they said in a statement released on March 19th [see below]. “It’s wholly inappropriate for a non-journalism business to misuse the code in an attempt to justify barring a reporter from doing her job.”

Pfahler, who also writes about the Cincinnati Bengals (where she says she’s never encountered these issues), is grateful for the support, especially since she feels her integrity is under attack.

“I am a business of one. My reach is small in the grand scheme of things,” she said in an email to me. “Yet, FC Cincinnati felt it appropriate to launch an attack on me in response to others coming to my defense. As a freelancer, my potential employers are vast. I’m concerned their false statements impact my reputation. I am eternally grateful for the incredible amount of support from people locally and across the country. I know the truth is on my side.”

UPDATE: Laurel Pfahler announced on March 23rd that her credentials were restored. This came after pressure from journalists and fans. She put this on her blog:

I want to move forward and put this behind me. Before I do, I want to thank the soccer fans, journalism colleagues and everyone else who reached out in support during this time, both privately and publicly. I know fans had different ways of expressing their support, some more extreme than others, but I would never want my situation to impact something you love or enjoy as a temporary escape from the troubles of the week.

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Statement from the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, the 15-member international body that promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a time-honored set of voluntary guidelines for professional reporters. It’s wholly inappropriate for a non-journalism business to misuse the code in an attempt to justify barring a reporter from doing her job.

Journalism is not marketing. Finding sources other than approved statements is what reporters are expected to do by their employers and the public. It should be made clear that the SPJ code is not a set of rules, not enforceable in any legal sense, and not designed for non-journalists to punish journalists.