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Alan Hinton should look inward after divorce from Sounders

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Former coach and broadcaster is instead insisting this is all some sort of misunderstanding.

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Alan Hinton and the Seattle Sounders go back a long way. Having coached the Sounders in the halcyon days of the NASL of the early 1980s before the league’s demise, Hinton remained in the Seattle soccer scene in the 40-plus years since as a mentor, storyteller and entertainer. He was a key part of resurrecting the Sounders name when he helped launch the A-League Sounders in 1994 and still held the trademark on the name when the the new Seattle MLS team was launched. He continued to play a role with the team during the MLS era, joining the initial Sounders broadcast team through 2011, and staying on as a “Brand Ambassador” for the Sounders up through June 2020.

That long-term relationship came to an abrupt and acrimonious end this week, as the Sounders informed Hinton that his services would no longer be needed after a series of tweets late Monday which many took as racially insensitive — at best.

The context behind Hinton’s comment centered around several people criticizing his Twitter commentary on the ongoing protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Hinton, it’s fair to say, espouses more conservative takes on social media, which of course is his right as a citizen.

His response — which he claimed showed that he was not in fact a racist — led to a fierce backlash, and the Sounders parted ways with him less than 24 hours later. The Sounders released a statement following the divorce explaining the decision.

“Sounders FC has ended its independent contractor relationship with Alan Hinton. Hinton’s tweets on June 1 are not congruous with our club values, and as such, he will no longer be representing the organization in an ambassadorial capacity.”

The implication many took from his tweet is that Hinton views people of color — and we’re talking about black people here, frankly — in a transactional sense. “What can you do for me?” That he seemingly didn’t see that value of black players up until the point they were useful to him in a sporting capacity raises understandable eyebrows. Hinton after the fact argued that he was relaying an old story from playing days gone by.

Hinton further defended his comments in another tweet, which didn’t seem to make things any better, and he was informed by the Sounders that they would no longer be using his services. He took to Twitter to rail against the decision, and in an interview accused Sounders majority-owner Adrian Hanauer of using the episode as a pretext to get rid of him.

“Adrian Hanauer twisted it to suit his goal to cut his budget,” Hinton told the Seattle Times. “He didn’t give me a chance to explain what happened. … Since race and rioting is on the television — I watch it six hours a day — and it’s very, very upsetting.”

Hinton is fairly verbose on Twitter with his commentary on race and politics. He seems to have a fascination of President Barack Obama (he on more than one occasion accused the former president of removing a bust of Winston Churchill from the White House and returning it to England, a story that has been debunked).

Now, Hinton is free to throw just about whatever he wants out into the zeitgeist, whether it’s profound, fake, racist or merely clueless. That of course does not require the Sounders to continue to employ him in any capacity. The standard response in these situations is a claim by the aggrieved party that the employer is violating their “free speech” rights. Hinton certainly didn’t shy away from making a similar argument on Twitter.

This obviously misrepresents the First Amendment, which protects against government suppression and reprisal of protected speech and a free press. It was somewhat ironic, then, that Hinton argued in an earlier tweet that free speech for the press was inconvenient in these troubled times.

That aside, Hinton remains free to express his opinions to the press, on Twitter or to friends and family during Thanksgiving. That the Sounders made the decision to part ways with him for what they believe to be a violation of their independent contractor agreement — to say nothing of basic standards of decency at this time in our history — is their right as well. Both the Sounders and Hinton will have to deal with the consequences from their actions in this episode. Anecdotally, the reaction to this move from the Sounders has been positive, but they may lose some support from those who think they’ve taken a heavy hand.

Unfortunately for Hinton, he has lost the team he has supported in some form or fashion for the last four decades. His actions in the aftermath of this breakup suggest there won’t be a reconciliation (he is pondering a lawsuit). He clearly doesn’t understand why the Sounders made this decision, and it doesn’t appear that he thinks he did anything wrong.

The end of a long-term relationship, especially on bad terms, can give one the opportunity to reevaluate the things a person has said and done which may have contributed its demise. Hinton has walked up to the line before with his comments on matters of race, and this time the Sounders determined that he crossed it. So with the end of his time with the Sounders, Hinton would do well to reflect on his behavior here in the lead up and aftermath of his termination (accusing your former employer of using your comments as a reason to remove a $12,000 line-item from a multi-million dollar annual budget seems a little self-important, after all).

Given his age and history — and his admitted stubbornness — it may be too much to expect him to be introspective about what he said and why many were offended. So here is another suggestion: Hinton should sit down with some of his friends of color over a pint, ask some questions and listen. He may be surprised with what he hears. At least that may offer him some context, if not closure.