Photo: Ted S. Warren (AP)

MLS and its clubs are currently embroiled in a fight against their own supporters over what the league claims are violations of its anti-politics rules. Over the last two weeks, multiple fans in multiple stadiums have been ejected for banners that run afoul of the league’s Fan Code of Conduct. There has also been a blanket ban on imagery pertaining to the Iron Front, an anti-fascist supporter group that spans across clubs.

Specifically, MLS is pointing to this part of its code of conduct:

MLS and its Clubs will immediately action the following behaviors as they represent a threat to the safety of the event:

[...]

  • Using (including on any sign or other visible representation) political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior

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One of the league’s most fan-friendly markets was the site of the first of the recent incidents of anti-politics policing. At Atlanta United’s August 11 match against NYCFC, nine members of the Resurgence supporters group were ejected from the stadium due to their anti-gun violence and anti-fascism signs.

Along with their ejections, some of the fans also received two-year bans from the stadium. Another segment of the ejected supporters were given a three-match ban, with the potential to get ticketing rights reinstated if, according to Dirty South Soccer, they pay $250 for a four-hour “fan class” and write a letter of apology.

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The following week, Seattle Sounders fan Shawn Wheeler, the co-president of Sounders fan group Emerald City Supporters, said he was ejected from the LA Galaxy’s stadium for a sign protesting fascism and racism.

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It’s a depressing commentary on our current national moment that signs stating opposition to gun violence, fascism, and racism are deemed “political”—scare quotes because whenever someone decries something for being “political” they rarely mean it literally, since anything and everything can be political. More often, “political” actually means “potentially controversial in a way I and/or my customers might dislike”—rather than plain common sense. It is good, though, to have on record that MLS itself wishes to court “both sides” of these so-called political issues, both normal people and avowed white supremacists alike, and cram them all into one big stadium together hoping no one brings up the fact that one “side” wishes members of the other never existed.

The Portland Timbers seem to understand the ridiculousness of MLS’s “we don’t want to scare off the neo-Nazis” position, at least on paper. In a statement released late on Monday night, the team stated that it allows anti-fascist signs at home games, and even went as far as stating its opposition to fascism:

The Portland Timbers stand steadfast against fascism. We always have and we always will. Our actions supporting inclusion, diversity and acceptance for more than a decade speak for themselves, as does the freedom we have always given our supporters to express themselves at our matches. To suggest anything else is patently false and offensive.

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And yet, the Timbers will continue partially banning the Iron Front imagery from their games, playing into the misguided notion that antifa and the fascist groups they exist in opposition to are simply two sides of the same coin. While the Timbers will allow supporters to wear Iron Front symbols on their shirts, pins, or scarves, they forbid banners with the Iron Front logo, because they might show up on television:

For obvious reasons banners and signs are widely visible to the broader stadium and television audience and thusly fall under a different set of guidelines. Despite its origins dating back to fascism opposition in World War II-era Germany and elsewhere, today most of the broader public are unaware of the Iron Front and its historic meaning. Instead it is widely associated with its frequent use by antifa, often in the context of violence at protests or counter protests. 

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Despite the hand-wringing from even sympathetic actors like the Timbers, the solution here isn’t all that difficult. If fans want to hold banners protesting fascism and racism and gun violence, that should be fine. Anyone in the stadium personally offended by a sign that calls for an end to mass shootings should either get over it or stay home, where their gentle constitutions can be carefully shielded from scary ideas like that. If neo-Nazis and their ilk feel like they aren’t welcome in the stadium, then all the better.

Either way, MLS should decide once and for all if it wants all the pomp, circumstance, and passion that comes with its fans’ sometimes cringy cosplay of European-style, community-minded soccer fandom. It’s a feature, not a bug, one that comes from accepting that, when you treat your sport like a beacon of community, then some people will start treating it as such. Or, MLS can continue striving for the same aggressively “apolitical” vibe of the rest of American pro sports, where no virtue is as sacred as the league’s and owners’ own greed.