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MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott to meet with supporters over political expression issues

Major League Soccer president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott will meet with supporters’ group representatives next Thursday in Las Vegas over the ongoing debate about political expression in MLS stadiums. 

Specifically, the meeting is to discuss fan code of conduct issues as they relate to the display of the Iron Front symbol. Supporters contend the image is purely an expression of anti-fascist sentiment, while officials with the league assert that it has been adapted by official Antifa groups and therefore crosses a line. 

Independent Supporters Council president Bailey Brown confirmed she would be at the meeting, adding that she’d be joined by three supporters’ groups: the Portland Timbers‘ Timbers Army and Seattle Sounders‘ Gorilla FC and Emerald City Supporters. 

After Portland clarified its policy (in an expansive post on its site) regarding the Iron Front symbol last month — allowing the image on shirts and patches, but not on banners or flags — the three supporters’ groups organized a joint protest at the Aug. 23 Timbers-Sounders match at Providence Park. The SGs stayed quiet until the 33rd minute, broke the silence by singing “Bella Ciao” (an Italian folk song adopted by those who resisted both the Nazi occupation of Germany and the fascist Italian Social Republic) and then were active for the remainder of the match. Some Iron Front flags were seen waving in Portland’s supporters’ section and Seattle’s away section. 

That match notably included pre-game ceremonies in which the teams displayed banners literally identifying themselves as anti-fascist and anti-racist. 

On Monday, Minnesota United fans made the claim on the Wonderwall website that the team’s front office would go further than what the Timbers enforced with respect to the Fan Code of Conduct, and ban clothing and patches worn by individuals as well as banners and flags. But on Friday afternoon, Wonderwall released a new statement on its site after meeting with MNUFC representatives the day before, clarifying that the restriction didn’t extend to clothing and patches after all. 

“Part of what we need to do is to continue to explain our rationale and view here,” Abbott said, speaking to Pro Soccer USA on the issue this week. Referring to the supporters, Abbott asserted, “We agree on much more than we disagree about, and what we disagree about very specifically, is symbology.” 

“This isn’t about censoring people or stopping their free speech,” Abbott continued. “People are able to express a wide variety of views. You can put up a sign that says anti-fascism; you can put out a sign that says fascism is not welcome here. You can express those values. What we do think the right dividing line is when that crosses over to the promotion of an outside political organization. That’s something that we don’t think is appropriate in our stadiums. And I think that’s the right place for us to be. I think that meeting with the supporters is going to be a healthy step. We look forward to having that conversation.” 

Brown noted, regarding the upcoming meeting, “We were very excited to hear about the meeting and we’re honored to be invited and included. The Independent Supporters Council sees this as a huge step in league-supporter relations, and we’re excited to start this dialogue with Major League Soccer.” 

Brown pointed to a statement on the ISC site, published Aug. 22, articulating four points central to the supporter coalition’s stance: 

1. In alignment with the “Soccer For All” campaign, it is okay to denounce white supremacy in and outside of stadiums to create a welcoming environment for all fans of the sport.

2. Re-write the Code of Conduct with experts in human rights to define the term “political” as it pertains to items brought into the stadiums.

3. Create consistency across the table for what is and is not allowed inside of stadiums as well as consequences given for items brought in.

4. Create an official appeals system for supporters in which true documentation is given with proof.

“I am optimistic about the meeting and that it will establish a needed foundation in positive working relations between Major League Soccer and supporters in an official capacity,” Brown said. “We have had some very positive conversations with league contacts building up to this point and feel that the trust that is going to be established during the meeting is going to be huge in continuing future working dialogue to make sure that this code of conduct honors all fans and supporters.” 

Abbott laid out the league’s current stance on political expression and reiterated it largely agrees with the views of those supporters who speak out against fascism and racism. 

“We have more signage than any sports league,” he pointed out, asserting that it’s “natural to say you have to have some guidance as to what those signs can do and be. I think everybody would agree. That’s why I say we agree more than we disagree. I think everybody would agree that signs that promote a particular candidate is something that shouldn’t be allowed. I don’t think there’s really disagreement about that.

“Our view is that an outside political organization similarly shouldn’t be promoted. Our view is that Antifa is such an organization. This isn’t about their views or what they support. Also, I’ve read a little bit where people say, ‘Well, you’re drawing false equivalencies between Antifa and right-wing organizations.’ So I’ll be very clear. We condemn hate speech and white supremacy, and all of that has no place in our stadiums. And I think people who know the league and follow us know that we have a commitment to diversity.” 

More from Pro Soccer USA’s conversation with Abbott Monday was published on the site Thursday evening. 

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