On their way to a soccer match on October 24th, a group of supporters of Lazio—a club based in Rome that was once supported by Benito Mussolini—gave Nazi salutes and sang a song from the Hungarian Revolution that has recently become a favorite with the Italian far right. Inside the stadium, a group of Celtic FC supporters known as the Green Brigade were waiting for them with a retort: a banner depicting Mussolini’s hanging, bearing the message “Follow your leader.” Both groups received fines from European soccer’s governing body, which charged them with “provocative messages that are of a political, ideological, religious or offensive nature.” That one message was offensive to most human beings by virtue of being fascist while the other was offensive only to literal fascists was not, evidently, a factor in the decision.
If you agree with that logic, you might just work for Major League Soccer (MLS), which has responded to similar problems in the United States by cracking down on the display of antifascist symbols in stadiums. Recently, however, fans of the Portland Timbers and other MLS clubs have staged historic protests against the league’s policy on “political speech,” forcing the league to examine its code of conduct. Thanks to this grassroots action, MLS and its fans may be on the verge of doing something unheard of in American sports: taking an actual public stand against fascism.
It’s weird that it’s 2019 and we’re still having a discussion about whether Nazis should be allowed to do Nazi stuff at sporting events. It’s also weird—albeit infinitely more predictable—that professional sports leagues are both squeamish about cracking down on right-wing hate speech and quick to equate it with the anti-racist response it draws from the left. This type of response is sadly common in sports, where executives, players, and fans often prefer the fantasy of an apolitical sports universe (where far-right ideas are just innocent opinions that can calmly be discussed over a beer and not the active insistence that most of humanity is inferior and should be slaughtered) to the facts on the ground.
Let’s look at the facts on the ground in MLS. Neo-Nazi skinheads announced their presence among the supporters of New York City FC almost as soon as the club first took the field in 2015. They have remained there for the past several years, occasionally performing racist chants, carrying banners with Nazi imagery, scrawling “white power” on the walls, and getting into fights. Fans repeatedly brought this behavior to the attention of the club, but NYCFC didn’t respond beyond issuing vague commitments to uphold the MLS code of conduct. This code of conduct, incidentally, specifically bans “racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior,” yet somehow the Neo-Nazis and their affiliated groups were allowed to remain for several years, during which time two groups with clear links to white nationalists were even incorporated into an official, club-sanctioned supporters group.
In the meantime, stadium officials in Toronto told people to take down a “Refugees Welcome” banner. Officials at a Vancouver stadium removed several fans for daring to carry a banner with the words “antifascist” and “antiracist” on it. Finally, in October 2018, it was revealed that several far-right NYCFC supporters had participated in the Proud Boys’ assault on antifascist demonstrators outside of the Manhattan Republican Club. One of the perpetrators—Irvin Antillon, a skinhead who had already been widely known for his affiliation with a number of alt-right groups and was a confirmed attendee of the Unite the Right rally at which Heather Heyer was murdered—was banned from attending NYCFC games. (Technically, Antillon was banned before the assault, but NYCFC didn’t announce the ban until afterward, and at least one other Proud Boy who was present for the attack outside the Manhattan Republican Club was not banned from NYCFC.)
As fans urged the league to crack down on confirmed, violent right-wingers in their midst, Commissioner Don Garber responded that it was not the MLS’ place “to judge and profile any fan.” When supporters made it clear they found this response wholly inadequate, MLS acted with the kind of decisiveness one expects from a company desperate not to alienate customers: It banned all political language and behavior during games, placing the word “political” alongside words like “threatening,” “abusive,” racist,” and “sexist” in its code of conduct.
To recap: Literal neo-Nazis, many of whom were known to enjoy committing politically-motivated assaults, became a visible presence at MLS games. Other fans responded with signs and chants espousing antiracism and antifascism. The league said the problem was “political language” and banned it—and not the violent Nazis—entirely.
At this point, let’s pause to take a look at a group of Portland Timbers fans known as the Timbers Army. Much like the Green Brigade in Glasgow, the Army’s primary focus is on enjoying soccer, but their guiding principle is that matches must be safe and enjoyable for all. This sort of fan group is common in many other countries, particularly those that have experienced widespread fascist infiltration of sporting events. Like their counterparts in Glasgow, Hamburg, Istanbul, and elsewhere, the Timbers Army doesn’t necessarily view their activities as political, but they unapologetically identify with the end of the political spectrum that doesn’t try to harass queer people, women, and people of color into staying away from soccer matches.
While we should never forget that MLS has thrown people out of stadiums for identifying as “antifascist” and “antiracist,” MLS is still invested in making LGBT-friendly and antiracist messaging part of the regular game-day experience (and its merchandising opportunities). In fact, groups like the Timbers Army are exactly the kind of thing MLS executives have dreamed about since the league opened in 1996: grassroots fan organizations, idiosyncratic and fiercely loyal, that resemble the kind of fanatical support soccer engenders nearly everywhere outside the United States. The Timbers Army serves as proof of concept for MLS, confirmation that a vibrant soccer culture can exist in a country which has mostly been invested in other sports: football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. As such, the Timbers Army is frequently featured in the entire league’s promotional materials.
The members of the Timbers Army understood, crucially, that their visibility within the league gave them leverage. After MLS announced its ban on political speech, members of the Timbers Army went to matches proudly displaying antifascist arrows, symbol of the 1930s German antifascist movement known as the Iron Front. These fans were duly removed from the games by the authorities, and outrage rippled through the MLS fan community. The protests spread around the league, with fans from Atlanta to Los Angeles bringing explicitly political, explicitly antifascist signage into stadiums and getting removed.
The optics here were not great for the league, and they were about to get worse. At an August 23rd match between Portland and their archrivals, the Seattle Sounders, two prominent Seattle fan groups known as the Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC joined the Timbers Army in a silent protest. The fans sat, eerily quiet (for a soccer match anyway), until the game’s 33rd minute. (The number was symbolic, a reference to 1933, when Hitler outlawed the Iron Front.) When minute 33 dawned, the fans finally broke the silence and the stands blossomed with antifascist arrow flags as well as other left political symbols. The fans had shown the league exactly what they thought of its rules regarding political speech, and they had done so live on ESPN, during one of the season’s marquee matches.
About a month later, after several more prominent games marked by fan protests, the league announced it would be lifting its ban on Iron Front imagery until the end of the season. Even more significantly, MLS promised to review its code of conduct and announced the formation of a working group consisting of fan leaders, “diversity and inclusion experts,” and league officials.
Though it’s difficult to get excited over the creation of a working group, this is a potentially huge moment in American sports. In Europe and Latin America, it’s quite common for a team or a subset of its fans to be closely associated with a particular political movement or philosophy, but the prevailing wisdom in the United States is that fans, players, and writers should “stick to sports.” Organizations like Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and MLS are monopolies that view fans as customers, and it’s in their interest to keep politics as far away from their business as they can. One need look no further than Colin Kaepernick or Megan Rapinoe to see just how desperate conservative owners, fans, and commentators are to keep up the charade that American sports is apolitical. This willful ignorance, in addition to the sporting oligarchy’s distaste for anything genuinely left-wing, has created a restrictive and reactionary sporting culture, one where games routinely begin with a pageant celebrating the nation and its military but where speaking out against police violence draws swift condemnation.
Last season’s Iron Front protests cracked this façade, creating an opportunity for American soccer to differentiate itself and endorse the open, progressive culture that its most ardent supporters have built. According to the Independent Supporters Council (ISC)—a coalition of fan groups that is representing supporters in the talks with MLS—the league is taking this opportunity seriously and is open to amending its code of conduct to reflect the values of the people it governs. As the youngest and poorest major league in the country, one with an unusually diverse fan base and competition from leagues in Mexico, the U.K., and elsewhere, MLS presumably also understands that it cannot afford to alienate the die-hard supporters who are currently keeping American professional soccer afloat.
MLS’ fanbase has made it clear that it wants soccer stadiums to be places where minority, queer, and immigrant fans are not merely tolerated but enthusiastically welcomed, while Proud Boys, fascists, and bigots of all varieties are not. Though leagues like the NFL have settled into jingoistic conservatism under a patina of “sticking to sports,” there’s nothing in the rules that says a sports league can’t take a stand against fascism. This is the thrust of what the ISC is asking the league to do via the working group: to distinguish between hate speech and speech which promotes radical inclusivity, acknowledging that the former is actively dangerous to health and safety while the latter is something to be encouraged.
It’s entirely possible for a league to allow anti-Nazi demonstrations while banning Nazis, and entirely justifiable to draw the line of acceptable speech at overt racism. A league that valued the safety of its fans more than it valued the business of those who would ethnically cleanse the stands would have absolutely no problem with allowing antifascist arrow banners while banning racist skinheads. The two are not equivalent. As a soccer fan and an American, I would love to think that we could all agree on that.