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Stick it to Sports

How soccer supporters’ groups fought the league and won—for now

Fans entering the General Admission section of Providence Park, home of the Portland Timbers, on September 7, found a flyer on their seat. It was from the 107 Independent Supporters Trust, the nonprofit entity behind the Timbers Army, the supporters’ group for the Timbers, and the Rose City Riveters, the supporters’ group for Portland women’s team, the Thorns.

This was a reminder of an ongoing battle between the Timbers Army and both Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Timbers’ front office, the business entity for the team. The dispute was over what the Army labeled an “arbitrary” ban on political speech. The flyer included the Iron Front logo: three downward-facing arrows inside a circle, an almost hundred-year-old symbol first used by organizations fighting the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany. The logo is brandished by fans at games and emblazoned on Timbers Army merchandise, a reminder that they stand against the far-right.

“If you are against hatred, oppression, fascism, then you’re antifa. Simple as that,” read the flyer, speaking to why the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters had decided to fight to continue bringing antifascist symbols and advocacy into the North End of the park. “We support the image as it is meant to be: a symbol of our firm stance of combating hatred—in soccer, in our communities, and in the world.” For the September 7 game, the Timbers Army had decided to stand down on some of its supporter roles, including lighting smoke flares when the Timbers score.

The dueling camps, a growing corporate sports franchise on one side and an estimated five thousand committed Portland fans on the other, exemplify what makes soccer different. What the new MLS policy disallowed: “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.” The point of contention was over one word: the definition of “political.” A ban on political speech may seem innocuous on its face—such bans are usually understood as a prohibition on commenting on elections, not broad social issues—but it was the league’s interpretation that brought supporters to a halt.

The MLS has used this policy to take aim at antifascist symbols, which have become part and parcel of soccer supporters’ groups. The Iron Front logo has appeared in soccer fandom for years, and the supporters’ groups that make up a substantial base of soccer fans often have a political edge. More than this, they operate independent of the league, in a symbiotic relationship with the team.

“I’m a supporter, I’m far more than a fan at this point. A fan just watches a game, the supporter gives their voice and energy to it,” says Stephan Lewis, a board member for the 107 Supporters Trust. Supporters’ clubs raise banners and flags, have drum lines in the stands, cheer, chant, and generally prop up their team and ratchet up the match experience—all out of sense of commitment to the game. They were not going to be dictated to by the larger sporting body about what their fandom should look like. “They are trying to market towards fans, but it is supporters’ culture they don’t understand and they have always struggled with,” says Lewis.

The MLS has used this policy to take aim at antifascist symbols, which have become part and parcel of soccer supporters’ groups.

Around the world, where football is a much bigger sport than it is in the United States, supporter groups are known for community building. Sometimes they share little more than a straightforward love of the team, other times this bond extends to hometown support, and still other groups form out of a sense of political solidarity. Left-wing clubs in the United Kingdom and Germany have made politics central to their vision of soccer as a multicultural experience, and they have often clashed with far-right clubs connected to the National Front or the British National Party. Frequently portrayed as an outgrowth of hooliganism, antifascist soccer clubs are in reality much more varied. The fan experience is shaped by the culture built through supporter groups, and they are a significant part of ticket and merchandise sales.

The Timbers Army has supported the Portland Timbers Football Club since 2001, before it was an MLS team, and it has grown by the thousands since then. While Portland leans left, it also has a history of fascist street violence. Oregon was one of the largest centers of the Klan in the 1920s, a major hotbed of neo-Nazi skinhead gang violence in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently has seen violent attacks by members of far-right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. It’s no surprise, then, that the Timbers Army decided to bring antifascist politics into their supporters’ club, using the group to help bolster charitable causes and speak out against racism in the stadium and the community. 

European football matches have seen far-right groups react to the recent influx of refugees, prompting supporters’ groups to fly pro-refugee banners in stadiums. The Timbers Army has followed suit, joining with the local Immigrant and Refugee Committee Organization (IRCO) to raise money for food and education support for immigrant students in addition to holding multiple supply drives. They started flying the Iron Front logo regularly back in 2017 after a series of racist attacks and shifts in public politics, and they now feature the logo on their shirts, patches, and other materials that dot the fanbase in the general admission section. 

“Over the last few years we have had a lot of members of our community feel less safe. Feel threatened,” said Stephan Lewis. “And there are people who want to make them feel threatened outside. So having the areas we inhabit be the safe spaces is really important. And there is a symbol against that. There is a symbol that is against hate.”

It’s within this context that the MLS’s decision seems at odds with soccer culture. The new policy not only undermines supporters’ groups, it bans their time-honored expressions of solidarity outright.

The Portland Timbers front office decided to uphold the rules set by MLS, enforcing the ban across their various teams, including the Thorns, who are in the National Women’s Soccer League, not MLS, and thus not actually subject to the MLS ban. “Major League Soccer believes the Iron Front symbol is inherently political because it has been co-opted by antifa,” the Timbers Front Office said in a statement.

Compared with its counterparts in basketball, football, and baseball, Major League Soccer is an infant. The league played its first game in 1996, achieving mainstream fandom only within the last decade. In its aspirations, it appears to mimic the NFL with its major television deals and sponsorships. Don Garber, the MLS commissioner for the last two decades, was with the NFL for sixteen years as it became increasingly marked by commercialized fandom and corporate partnerships. Garber is committed to making MLS the next big television sport, and it’s clear that “antifa” symbols are not part of his bid for eyeballs across the United States.

“If you look at international leagues, politics has ALWAYS been a part of the game, whether it’s vocally leftist clubs like FC St Pauli [a football supporter club in Germany] or the right wing extremists infiltrating European football today taunting black players by throwing bananas at them and calling them monkeys,” says Megan Rabone, a Timbers Army member. Supporter groups for teams in other countries, such as AS Livorno (Italy), Rayo Vallecano (Spain), and Olympique de Marseille (France), are political agents; as the far-right explodes across Europe, these groups play an important role in combatting anti-immigrant and xenophobic behavior from right-wing hooligans. In the United States, the New York Football Club (NYFC) started to become a go-to spot for Proud Boys and neo-Nazi skinheads, prompting many to demand action from MLS.

In Seattle, the Sounders supporter group Gorilla Football Club (GFC) has had politics at their core since it was founded by activists. The group raises money for a variety of causes, including building “tiny homes” for the area’s homeless community, creating community gardens for refugee centers, and supporting disaster relief in Haiti. “We have openly used the phrase antifa to describe ourselves. We are an antifa group . . . we have not backed away from using it,” says Cameron Collins, the Vice President of GFC and former leader of the National Lawyers Guild at Seattle University. “We have been espousing these ideas since day one, so we have been recognized for that.” 

For soccer supporter clubs, scarves are a key item (you wave them during games), and the GFC has included the Iron Front Logo on virtually all of its scarves. Traditionally, the club has been met with leeway from the Sounders Front Office; until recently, this included determining what counts as “political” symbolism. That is, until MLS cracked down on the Timbers Army, singling them out as an example. “The supporter groups have a unique relationship with the club that you don’t have in other sports . . . How far you can push it is entirely based on the relationship the supporter group has with that club,” says Collins.

Gorilla FC was joined by the even larger Sounders supporter group, Emerald City Soccer (ECS), in issuing statements supporting the use of antifascist symbols in the face of the MLS ban. Section 8, a Chicago supporters group with a left-wing orientation, also released a statement condemning the ban, and other clubs from around the country joined in opposition to it.

These protests grew after the Portland Timbers Front Office extended the ban to the Thorns. The Rose City Riveters have joined to support the Timbers Army; the Iron Front logo and vocal antifascist and LGBT support is a key part of their fandom too. “Rose City Riveters are antifascist. Full stop. . . . We do not believe that human rights are ‘political.’ But we also are unafraid to delve into issues some may perceive as ‘political,’” says Jo Thompson, a board member of the Rose City Riveters. “We will continue to fly the flag and encourage people to use the insignia in their personal displays inside the stadium.”

In August, the MLS Players Association, the union for MLS players, took to Twitter to voice solidarity with the supporters: “As countless athletes have shown in the past several years, we all have a voice and should be empowered to use it to support inclusiveness and oppose those who attempt to silence opinion. Our supporters’ groups are the backbone of our league and have our full support.” This message of a “united front,” a notion that people from different and often opposing groups are coming together in the common fight against fascism, has been supported by the Independent Supporters Council (ISC), the organization that represents the supporters’ clubs and bargains with the league on fan rules.

On August 23, the Portland Timbers played the Seattle Sounders in what promised to be one of the most heated matches of the season. While the feud between the teams has often precluded coordination in the past, this time the supporter groups found common cause. Instead of joining in with their regular songs and chants, both groups went silent for a full thirty-three minutes in honor of the year (1933) that the Iron Front was crushed by the Nazis. “Against all odds and for the first time ever a protest was organized between the two biggest rival fan groups in U.S. Soccer,” says Alex Kowalski, a member of the Timbers Army who is also a member of Rose City Antifa, an antifascist group in Portland. “Supporters united to show that though we may not always agree, there are issues bigger and more pressing than regional rivalry.”

Despite this united front, MLS went ahead with enforcing its new policy when fans flew Iron Front symbols at the August 31 match against Real Salt Lake; three supporters were given a three-game suspension. Two weeks earlier in Atlanta, several supporters had been ejected from a game for carrying banners against fascism (or in one case, simply against gun violence). A few received bans lasting up to a year or were told they could only return to the stadium after completing a $250 fan training. In September, Seattle supporter groups staged a walkout of their own.

“If you’re offending Nazis, you’re probably doing something right,” says Abram Goldman-Armstrong, one of the supporters banned for displaying the Iron Front logo. Goldman-Armstrong is also the owner of the Portland pub Cider Riot, which has been vandalized by white nationalists because of its left-wing orientation. As the political ban took effect, he decided to release an Iron Front Cider as a show of support for the team and for antifascism. “Antifascism has been a part of the Timbers Army ethos since the beginning. . . . I felt that it was really timely to tie in the message from this cider anyway, which is against borders and against discrimination,” says Goldman-Armstrong.

“Supporters united to show that though we may not always agree, there are issues bigger and more pressing than regional rivalry.”

On September 10, the Timbers Front Office finally sat down with the Timbers Army, who were supported by members of local organizations including the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, and the anti-racist nonprofit organization the Western States Center. “The current code lends itself to inequitable processes and outcomes like we’re seeing being practiced in the MLS today. Just a few years ago, a pride flag was interpreted to be a political statement, but now the league says that it’s not,” says Zakir Khan, a staff member at the Western States Center and the chair of CAIR-Oregon. “A ban on political speech makes no sense. We would support a ban on hate speech that is clear and consistently enforced.”

But as a much-hyped September 15 match between the Timbers and D.C. United, which included a major simulcast on ESPN, demonstrated, the fight was not over. Yet again, the Timbers Army began the match in stark silence, without cheering or chanting for three minutes and thirty-three seconds. At that moment, the crowd exploded, detonating green and gold smoke grenades (Timbers colors) and launching into coordinated chants without interruption for the rest of the game.

Afterward, members of the Timbers Army went to Las Vegas to join a meeting between the ISC and MLS where they escalated their concerns, and MLS finally listened. In a statement issued on September 24, MLS announced they would be halting the ban that was affecting the clubs. “MLS has suspended the prohibition on the Iron Front imagery at matches for the balance of the 2019 season and MLS Cup Playoffs while the working group conducts its analysis,” said MLS President Mark Abbott.

While this was a major victory for the Army, showing the power they had to influence the league, it is far from a done deal. The regular season is now over, and MLS has until February decide exactly how they want to present themselves in the 2020 season.

“I can get someone to understand the issue in two minutes. I can get someone to get behind it in five,” says Stephan Lewis. “There is nothing wrong with being an everyday antifascist.”