Days after a Vancouver Whitecaps fan had his flag seized prior to a game because it displayed an anti-Nazi symbol, the union that represents Major League Soccer’s players has come out in support of supporters’ groups in their battle with the league over “political” speech.
Before the 2019 season, MLS leadership imposed a fan code of conduct that included a ban on the display of symbols that are critical of hate groups or hate speech.
On Saturday in Portland, Paul Sabourin-Hertzog, the vice-president of the Southsiders (the Whitecaps’ main supporters’ group), tried to bring a flag that displayed the symbol of Iron Front, a group that opposed the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s. In the decades since the symbol, which features three arrows pointed towards the bottom left, has been taken up by a variety of social justice groups pushing back against oppression.
But that flag was deemed contrary to the league’s policies prohibiting political speech and was seized.
The Iron Front symbol was used for many years by Timbers Army, the main supporters’ group in Portland; and in Seattle, the Emerald City Brigade (the Sounders’ main supporters’ group) also displayed the symbol during a game against Portland, but drew criticism from the team’s ownership.
On Tuesday, the Major League Soccer Players’ Association waded into the debate.
“The MLSPA supports the efforts of its fan/supporters’ groups to overturn MLS’s overly vague ban on ‘political’ speech at MLS games,” the MLSPA wrote in a post on Twitter. “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.”
Sabourin-Hertzog said he and his colleagues in the Southsiders was pleased that the union had moved to back the fans.
“We’re very pleased at the MLS Players’ Union speaking up in support of supporters on this issue,” he said. “Standing against hateful ideologies and taking positive action towards the causes of inclusion and human rights is something that transcends team rivalries, and should be excluded from the current ban in place in MLS’s unilaterally imposed code of conduct.”
The MLSPA supports the efforts of its fan/supporters' groups to overturn MLS's overly vague ban on "political" speech at MLS games. (1/2)— MLSPA (@MLSPA) August 13, 2019
Whitecaps goalkeeper Zac MacMath is the team’s MLSPA representative.
“We support our fans, they support us through thick and thin. We should as players support them and their statements on whatever, political, gender stuff, pretty much anything they’d want, they should be able to show support of as a fan group,” he said. “The players stand behind them.
“If you feel comfortable to do it, absolutely; obviously a lot of people in the last number of years have come out and spoken the honest truth about how they feel about politics or equal pay or anything and they should have every right to do that.”
This latest debate around free speech came just a week after Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya made an in-game statement about gun control when he took a microphone and said, “Hey Congress, do something” as part of a goal celebration.
Speaking out isn’t for everyone, MacMath noted, but he encouraged anyone who had something to say, even if their opinion isn’t popular or well known. He also spoke with a touch of the French philosopher Voltaire, who once said he might not agree with someone’s opinion, but would fight to the death to defend one’s right to speak it.
“I definitely think some athletes are more comfortable with it, depending on their platform,” said MacMath. “Obviously, not everyone is as comfortable as someone like Bedoya; obviously, he cares a lot about some issues and has spoken out and is very educated on those issues, but it’s every athlete’s choice.
“If they want to speak out and stand for something, they should absolutely do it. It doesn’t mean you have to like it or follow it, but I would like to support those people.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019