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Vancouver Whitecaps enter fray of MLS political ban and Iron Front controversy

A Vancouver fan was banned for three games — but the Whitecaps quickly rescinded it and apologized.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The conflict between Major League Soccer and its most prominent fan groups over a new policy prohibiting political displays has reached the Vancouver Whitecaps. 

On Thursday, Whitecaps supporter Joshua Griffith reported that the club had banned him from the final three home games of the season for displaying a political sign during Vancouver’s home game against New York City FC. The banner said “#AUnitedFront Against Racism, Against Fascism” on one side and showed the Iron Front symbol on the other. 

That symbol, which depicts three arrows facing down and to the left, has been the major source of disputes about the MLS rules, which were introduced this season. The symbol is associated with an organization called the Iron Front, which fought in the 1930s against the Nazi Party’s Sturmabteilung. These days, it has been adopted as an anti-fascist symbol, but MLS says it’s a political symbol for its associations with the antifa movement.

“Oh man, what a day,” Griffith said to Pro Soccer USA. “So, I decided on Tuesday to buy season tickets and was waiting on my rep to call and finalize the details with payment. I got a call this morning from the Whitecaps number so I figured it was [my rep]. It was not [my rep], but a guy named Josh Nanavaty [the Senior Manager for Fan Relations] said I was being given a ban for the remainder of the season for having unapproved signs.”

“I told him my bags get checked every game and no one has ever said anything or approved my signs,” Griffith added. “He then said the sign I had was political and that was why. I told him I would phone him back later as I had some questions.”

But instead Griffith took to Twitter and his tweet caught fire.

Local media took interest and Griffith gave interviews to multiple news outlets before the Whitecaps backpedaled and announced that Griffith’s ban was a mistake.

“I phone Josh back at 2 o’clock and no answer and left a message for him to call me,” Griffith said. “Then Global TV arrived and I did a TV interview with them and at 3:30 he tried calling back and sent an email saying it was an internal communication error and I was only supposed to receive a warning.”

The Whitecaps apologized several times for the mistake, Griffith added.

“In this case, there was an internal miscommunication,” Whitecaps COO Rachel Lewis said in an official statement emailed to Pro Soccer USA. “We have since connected with the fan, apologized for the miscommunication, and provided a warning for breaching the code of conduct as it relates to political signage. We advise the individual that future breaches of the code of conduct would result in an immediate ban.”

Vancouver’s largest supporters group, which Griffith is part of, issued a statement Thursday to the various press outlets, including Pro Soccer USA, via text message. 

“We requested that they immediately rescind the ban,” group vice president Paul Sabourin-Hertzog said in the statement. “I reminded the Whitecaps that the Southsiders gave detailed feedback on the unilaterally imposed MLS Code of Conduct on March 3rd. Much of our feedback directly concerns the problems with a vaguely-worded ban on ‘political’ messages.”

“MLS and the Whitecaps unwillingness to collaborate with supporters groups around the league to refine the Code of Conduct has directly led to the issue they are now facing,” Sabourin-Hertzog added. “Standing against bigotry or ideologies of hate should not be seen as controversial.”

Vancouver is the latest city in MLS affected by controversy over the new MLS ban on political displays. Thus far, the major battleground has been Portland where the Timbers and their fans have been embroiled in a conflict over the Iron Front symbol, which included a silent protest during the Timbers’ biggest rivalry game of the season. On Wednesday, the Timbers Army confirmed that multiple Timbers fans were banned three games for waving Iron Front flags.

While MLS has defended the policy as creating a welcoming environment for fans who want to watch soccer without political distractions, fans say the rules have been unclear and aribitrary.

“This was the first and only time I’ve seen the Iron Front logo on non-clothing at BC Place,” president of the Southsiders, Peter Czimmermann, said to Pro Soccer USA. “I find this whole thing very suspect — what allows them to issue only a warning when the Timbers handed out bans for similar misconduct?” 

The Whitecaps, on the other hand, are adamant that they are committed in their fight against racism, fascism and any form of hatred.

“We will continue to permit signs that support basic human rights, as the rainbow pride flag does, as well as those that condemn racism and fascism,” Lewis’ statement said.

“Vancouver Whitecaps FC have a strong commitment to our core values of diversity and inclusion,” Lewis added. 

MLS says it shares that sentiment.

“Since our inception in 1996, MLS and its clubs have had a strong commitment to our core values of diversity and inclusion,” said MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott in an email sent to Pro Soccer USA by the Whitecaps.  “These values have been an important part of the way we think and operate on and off the field.”

Those values, however, have been questioned by the fans who oppose the new rules.

“I don’t know, I don’t really have much desire to at the moment,” Griffith said when asked by Pro Soccer USA whether he will return to BC Place this season. “But in the end, I don’t go to support [the front office] but the lads on the pitch so I will probably go.”

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