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OPINION: MLS Iront Front Controversy Dilutes Anti-Racist Message

The controversy surrounding the Iron Front symbol has tainted Major League Soccer’s Anti-Racist and Soccer For All messages.

SOCCER: AUG 23 MLS - Seattle Sounders FC at Portland Timbers

Since the passage and action on MLS’ controversial new rules on displays deemed “political”, a lot has been said in relation to the Iron Front symbol. A critical question lost in the midst has been who MLS wants in its stands and whether it is being explicit about it. Do we want white supremacists in our stadiums if they’re keeping their beliefs to themselves? I believe the answer to that question is no. They pose a security risk within games and in a larger sense, threaten the community the game serves.

The 2014 NASL semi-final between Minnesota United and the Fort Lauderdale sticks in my mind for mostly unhappy reasons, but it’s also the first time I encountered the Iron Front symbol. I asked one of the guys holding up an Iron Front banner to tell me what it was. After he explained it was an anti-Nazi symbol, I briefly googled it to learn more. To a South Asian immigrant with little experience in American sports spaces, it was pretty neat that there were local caucasian fans willing to stick their necks out to stand against those who would wish me harm. It made me feel welcome and safe among these fans.

In the five years since that day, I’m pleased to say that my feeling of pride in American soccer’s inclusion has only grown. I’ve met fans across the political spectrum at MNUFC games who have shared that they’re happy I’m present. There have been disagreements about policy in areas like national security, education or constitutional mandates, but I’m happy to say there has been little issue when it comes to my basic human right to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

Unfortunately, reports have arisen in the press this year of the presence of violent white supremacist Nazis in MLS stands who aren’t so inclined towards me. A report from the Huffington Post this Spring spoke to how games for New York City FC have played host to a skinhead group that was also involved in the violent Proud Boys riot in Manhattan. Vice has also reported on how this sort of far right extremist infiltration has parallels in the past; They wrote about how supporters of the New York Metrostars (now the New York Red Bulls) helped to push away a group of neo-Nazi supporters in the 90s.

The threat also has major parallels with society at large. As far back as 2009, the Department of Homeland Security warned of a surge in right-wing extremism. A decade later, we have had major white supremacist terrorist incidents like Charleston and El Paso. The infamous Charleston Unite the Right rally and the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand also stand out as major instances of white supremacist activity that stand out in the psyche. As recently as July 2019, the Director of the FBI told Congress that, “A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence”. On August 23, the Guardian reported that police have stopped “at least seven mass shootings and white supremacist attacks since El Paso”. To this soccer fan, the threat to our communities is coming overwhelmingly from a single extremist ideology and action against it needs to be clear and explicit.

Thus it was with considerable disappointment that I have reviewed Major League Soccer’s attitude to the far right. In March, MLS league commissioner Don Garber was asked by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Jonathan Tannenwald about the Huffington Post report regarding Nazis attending NYCFC games published two days prior. Two days should have been enough time for the commissioner to read a report of such gravity, digest it and prepare a proper response. Garber responded to Tannenwald with an answer that avoided criticizing the Nazis and instead focused on all fans who violate the MLS code of conduct. The quote, “our job is not to judge and profile any fans” stands out to me. To his credit, Garber spoke to the Athletic five days later and added remarks condemning hate groups. Yet, it’s troubling that when Nazis are brought up, the league commissioner couldn’t immediately bring himself to pass judgement on them. To me, even the most polite in society have been able to pass judgement against white supremacists and Nazis as abhorrent and deserving of ostracism.

To an extent, I understand Garber’s larger remarks. He’s in charge of a very large business and probably didn’t want to risk being misunderstood. Yet, it’s perplexing why he couldn’t have provided a statement to the tune of, “I cannot comment on the specific story as we’re still investigating the incident. However, this league doesn’t want white supremacists in our stadiums. MLS has one of the most diverse audiences in American sports and we’d like to do everything possible to maintain their safety and security. When our investigation is complete, we’ll have more specifics on the matter that the officials at NYCFC will share.”

This year has also seen MLS dilute its message for Pride month to “Soccer for All Month”. In a vacuum, this message muddling could be seen as benign but in light of Garber’s comments and the later policy enforcement on the Iron Front symbol, it’s hard not to view it as an intentional effort to pull back from previous messaging and try to welcome those who would be put off by large displays of inclusion and anti-Nazism.

But why does MLS want to play host to those offended by these efforts and dilute a message that is against the far right? Soccer is a sport that attracts some of the most diverse crowds in America. Is trying to ensure that white nationalists (albeit unmarked white nationalists per the ban on so-called political symbols) do not see symbols against them, a winning strategy for MLS in terms of ensuring the safety of its guests? Does MLS want to risk that an element of society, known to be increasingly violent for over a decade, will remain calm at MLS games?

Sports occasionally brings out the worst in the human psyche. Emotions run high and impulse control is low. I’ve been physically attacked at a soccer game because someone took issue with my waving a flag. If such an insignificant incident can lead to an oversized reaction, what can the most radicalized violent element in American society today do if things are going poorly for their team? It makes no sense to me from a risk management standpoint. Why run the risk of future individuals featured in the news having photos of them in MLS gear or at MLS games? Of course, the question can be asked of any MLS fan; anyone could potentially snap and achieve criminal notoriety. However, a review of current events and the news makes it absolutely clear that the greatest risk comes from white supremacists.

My final argument for MLS is regarding public relations. I work in marketing, not PR, but elements of that discipline are on my mind professionally. The previous policy was respected by supporters and led to few issues large enough to register in the mainstream. On the other hand, by unveiling this new policy, at this time, MLS has uncorked a powder keg of negativity. White nationalism is, whether we think it should be or not, at the forefront of Presidential politics and 2020 is a presidential election year. This issue is going to be front and center of some of the most explosive news stories for the next 13-24 months. Does MLS really want to have the league fighting a battle with its supporters that falls so close to this third rail? Does it really want itself to get dragged into the conversation every time the news cycle churns out a non-soccer incident that touches this issue? Surely the league cannot believe that explicitly calling for the total ostracism of racists and nazis is too controversial without watering down?

I would hope the answers to my questions are self-evident. Major League Soccer’s must take an explicit stance against white supremacists. Hiding behind stands against ‘all hate groups’ or ‘politics’ is at best the league ignoring the biggest threat in their stadiums and at worst giving comfort to the biggest threat to the larger communities their teams serve. Ensuring that the most radicalized, violent element in American society today feels unwelcome at games and stays home is the surest way for MLS to keep its fans safe, avoid bad PR and live up to their corporate responsibilities. It’s also the way we build a better world for us all to live in.