Two Seattle Sounders fans were ejected from a match after displaying a banner that read: “Anti-fascist, anti-racist, always Seattle.”
During the first leg of the Western Conference semifinals between the Seattle Sounders and the Vancouver Whitecaps in Vancouver on October 30, which ended in a 0-0 draw, two Seattle Sounders fans were removed from the stadium after they refused to take down a banner that read: “Anti-fascist, anti-racist, always Seattle.” According to reports, police intervened at the request of MLS, with an MLS official telling Sounders supporters group Emerald City Supporters (ECS) that the banner was considered “political speech.” While MLS’s Fan Code of Conduct states that “fans have a right to expect an environment…free from…political or inciting messages,” MLS’s approach to the issue of political symbols is at best contradictory and confused, and at worst a tone deaf silencing of important and courageous messages of solidarity and equality.
The fans, members of the ECS, were first asked to remove the sign, and when they did not comply, police were called and the fans were told that they could either leave the stadium with the banner or face arrest. According to Sounder At Heart, prior to the incident a number of banners that were “anti-racist and/or anti-fascist in nature” were confiscated when fans entered the ground but the banner in question was then returned to supporters prior to the beginning of the game and hung without issue during the first half. Until MLS got involved.
MLS has yet to release an official statement on the incident despite previously promising that it would do so. Seemingly it would simply rather that it was quickly forgotten. The response of the owners of the Sounders was better, although it could have been more forthright. They released a statement that read: “tolerance and inclusiveness are pillars of our society, and ideals we take seriously as an organization. At a human level, we believe these values to be non-political. Speaking up for equality is simply the right thing to do.” The Alliance Council, a group that represents Sounders season ticket holders, was more explicit, expressing support for the fans and criticizing MLS, saying that its “silence in this matter is deafening, disappointing and cowardly. The decision made to eject our fans last Sunday was wrong, and the silence surrounding the decision is wrong.”
This is not the first time that MLS has cracked down on what it views as unwelcome political messages. For example, in 2015 Toronto FC fans showing solidarity with the plight of refugees were told to remove a banner that read “refugees welcome.” Such incidents reveal the deliberately skewed and hypocritical definition of “political” often adopted by sporting bodies such as MLS, where clubs receiving funding from the military and hosting “Military Appreciation Nights” is not considered political but displaying solidarity with refugees and speaking out against racism and fascism is.
And yet MLS simultaneously continues to promote its “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign, where it talks up its “commitment to end discrimination of any kind and promotes an atmosphere of diversity, equality and inclusion throughout the soccer community.” Furthermore, other anti-racist and anti-fascist displays have not been met with the same reaction and MLS has even included photos of them on its own website. And the same banner that led to the fans being ejected in Vancouver has also reportedly been regularly displayed as Sounders home games without incident.
MLS clearly lacks a consistent, principled approach to the issue of displays inside its stadiums. Soccer’s global governing body, FIFA, is attempting to clarify its own approach with its plan to “change a blanket ban on political ‘slogans, statements, or images,’ replacing it with a ban on more specific violations.” However, as ever with FIFA, questions and issues remain regarding how the policy will be interpreted and enforced.
The incident serves to again highlight the ongoing tensions at the heart of US soccer between “its more nativist, nationalist impulses and more liberal, progressive tendencies.” Rather than seeking to silence it, MLS should instead be embracing the sort of sentiment displayed by the Sounders fans and that the league itself apparently seeks to promote via its own “Don’t Cross the Line” campaign.
Follow Aubrey on Twitter @AubBloomfield.