Major League Soccer this year implemented a policy prohibiting the display by fan clubs of certain types of signs and banners during games, specifically those “using . . . political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior.” MLS has shown that it means what it says. Fans waving a Betsy Ross flag at a Salt Lake City match, for instance, put it away after stadium personnel threatened expulsion. The league explained that the flag had been “adopted as a symbol for hate groups.”
The ban has resulted in a conflict between MLS and some Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders supporter clubs that want to display the banner of a long-defunct, leftist paramilitary group known as the Iron Front, which was involved in the violent street battles of 1930s Germany. League offices recently banned multiple fans for three games after they displayed the Iron Front flag. Supporters claim that the Iron Front insignia, consisting of three arrows pointed down and left, stands for “inclusivity” and should not be regarded as political. Though one supporters group, known as Gorilla FC, openly chooses to “identify as Antifa”—the loosely organized, far Left movement that favors direct action, including violence—other supporter clubs claim that they’re simply anti-racist and anti-fascist, and therefore noncontroversial. Some of the fan clubs are demanding not only that the Iron Front symbol be permitted but also that the word “political” be removed from the wording of the ban.
Mainstream media have shrugged at the association of soccer fan clubs that wave the Iron Front flag with local Antifa collectives, expressing confusion about why a group dedicated to fighting fascists and racists could be objectionable to anyone who isn’t a fascist or racist. ESPN’s soccer correspondent called the MLS ban on the Iron Front flag a “solution in search of a problem.” A writer for Yahoo called it “silly,” since “the Timbers Army has argued that the Iron Front flag promotes anti-racism, anti-fascism, and general inclusion. Being anti-racist and anti-fascist are not inherently political positions.” Deadspin suggests that “fans across the league have made the correct counter-claim that there is nothing political about opposing racism and fascism.”
But anyone invoking obscure partisan streetfighters from Weimar-era Germany is making a political statement—one that also incorporates European soccer’s long association with political violence. Iron Front was a real paramilitary group that fought self-identified fascists and Communists in Germany. Today’s American Antifa is a distinct political group whose black-clad members wear masks and tactical gloves and define as “fascist” anyone they oppose. The recent attack on a Tacoma ICE office was carried out by an Antifa member describing his action as “antifascist.” Antifa openly engages in violence in Portland.
Keeping the often-violent political friction found in the world’s soccer stadiums out of the United States is a worthy goal. Activists who cast America’s political divisions in terms of 1930s German street warfare are trying to will something like it into being. The ban on provocative displays lets American soccer fans in 2019 focus their attention on the field of play, where a rapidly improving product offers an inspiring advertisement for multicultural cooperation.
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