The seeds of dissent were visible almost immediately.
Soccer officials had notified the Timbers Army, a fan organization for the team in Portland, Ore., on the eve of this season that the anti-fascist symbol its members had been waving on a giant banner in the north end of the stadium would no longer be permitted at games. The fan group was not happy, releasing a lengthy critique of Major League Soccer’s new rules and working with team officials for months in meetings to change the rule.
But what began as an internal dispute between the league, the Timbers front office and the fan group has morphed into a full rebellion in recent weeks.
The symbol, a re-purposed icon from an anti-fascist group, the Iron Front from Nazi-era Germany, has popped up at stadiums around the country. The MLS ban of it has drawn coverage from left-leaning media outlets. And a recent Timbers game became the venue for a nearly stadium-wide protest that saw two rival fan groups join in silence for more than a half-hour before openly flouting the symbol’s ban.
How did a simple game – the beautiful game – become the setting for such a heated political struggle?
The Portland Timbers were incorporated into the MLS in 2010, part of a long wave of expansion for the league that continues today as the sport’s popularity grows.
They have attracted a particularly active fan base, embodied most feverishly by the Timbers Army, a supporters group of some 5,200 paying members that makes the stadium’s North End its raucous home every game.
The league has made relatively lenient rules in its stadiums a point of pride as it seeks to embrace a more participatory style of fandom that marks soccer in Europe and South America, where the game’s foothold is strongest. Compared to many football or baseball games, where signs are often heavily restricted, MLS games are marked by colorful signs, drummers, and gargantuan banners called tifos, which were originally pioneered by fan groups overseas.
But European-style fan groups often have deeper cultural or political connections, reflective of a different idea about fandom that exists overseas. There are fan clubs aligned with local political groups, unions and causes – socialist-aligned clubs and others that lean toward right-wing politics, or even overt fascism.
Portland Timbers display a tifo before a game against the Houston Dynamo at Providence Park. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)
For Portland, a famously liberal enclave that has increasingly become a staging ground for clashes between the far-right and anti-fascist activists – the city’s political leanings have been reflected by the fans.
In response to what fans say was a noticeable uptick in hate incidents in the city in 2017, the Timbers Army began to fly the Iron Front’s logo, three arrows down and to the left, in Timbers’ colors, as a banner at the game. The Iron Front was a political group of anti-fascist and anti-communist activists in Nazi Germany that was banned in 1933.
Team officials eventually asked the Timbers Army to take down the banner last year, but the fan group moved it to a flagpole instead, a compromise that seemed to be tolerated, Stephan Lewis, a co-chair for community outreach for the nonprofit atop the Timbers Army, told The Washington Post.
Then the league told the group about the new code of conduct coming, in the offseason.
The league said it began to update its code of conduct that year while consulting with its clubs to determine the appropriate balance between encouraging its fans while tamping down on some of the overt politics that has divided the country so bitterly in recent years.
Political signage, including the Iron Front symbol, is generally accepted on T-shirts, hats or other personal items, MLS says. But the league ruled that the symbol would not be permitted on large signs and banners that could be seen around the stadium or by audiences watching on television because it was inherently political.
The league says its use by the loose collection of hard-line anti-fascist protesters, Antifa, who have made it a mission to meet right-wing and supremacist demonstrators when they show up in cities across the country, to sometimes violent results.
“Despite its origins dating back to fascism opposition in World War II-era Germany and elsewhere, today most of the broader public are unaware of the Iron Front and its historic meaning,” the Timbers said in a statement explaining the decision. “Instead it is widely associated with its frequent use by Antifa, often in the context of violence at protests or counter protests. The Iron Front symbol is clearly different than a national symbol like the American flag, that some have tried to argue has been misappropriated by certain groups.”
The decision flew under the radar for months after the season began in March, delayed perhaps by the renovations that prevented the team’s home stadium from opening until June.
But in July, tensions about the symbol started to trickle up to the surface.
A fan group for the Seattle Sounders team, the Emerald City Supporters, was formally warned by the team’s front office about a large banner with the Iron Front logo that was displayed at a game. That story drew a small flurry of press.
In an interview with ESPN soon thereafter, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was asked about the challenges of determining what was political in an era when existential questions about race, sexuality and identity drive the conversation in Washington. Is it possible to be apolitical in this environment?
“We basically have created a policy that takes any decision-making off the table,” Garber said. “Our stadiums are not environments where our fans should be expressing political views because you then are automatically opening yourself up to allowing counter-views. Then we’re getting into a situation which is unmanageable and really not why the vast, vast majority of fans go to games.”
The ban began to draw more criticism, drawing harsh rebukes in publications like Deadspin and the Portland Mercury.
Portland Timbers fans dislay flags and banners, including an Iron Front symbol in the bottom right corner, during opening ceremonies before a game against Real Salt Lake at Providence Park. (Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports)
“The truth is that there is never an absence of politics. You either allow anti-fascist imagery or you don’t, but either decision speaks volumes about the values and priorities of your organization,” Mercury reporter Abe Asher wrote in an opinion piece. “If certain other supporters are uncomfortable with anti-fascist displays in stadiums, they should take a hard look at where exactly their discomfort stems from or find somewhere else to spend their time.”
Rebellious displays of the Iron Front symbol began to spread to other teams, popping up in the stands in the District of Columbia; Orlando; Oklahoma; Los Angeles; Cincinnati; and beyond, prompting the hashtag #AUnitedFront.
And publications, including Fox News, were taking note.
“Antifa’s ‘Iron Front’ symbol banned by Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders,” the publication reported as news in August, months after the ban had gone into effect.
Lewis, of the Timbers Army, said the group had tried discussing the use of the symbol with the Timbers front office throughout the season, but the talks didn’t yield a compromise.
But they did not want to let the issue go, saying that the symbol and its cause was worth fighting for.
“What’s ultimately important to us is that we create a safe place for all people,” he said. “By using the term political and applying that to the Iron Front image, it’s sending a dog whistle.”
So they came up with a plan with their rivals, the Emerald City Supporters and another Seattle fan club, Gorilla FC, to engage in a stadium-wide protest when the Sounders came to Portland for a match on Aug. 23.
People entering the stadium were given a flyer informing them of the plan: fans would be silent for the first 33 minutes of the game, to commemorate the year the Iron Front was banned in Nazi Germany. Then the stands would explode into an English adaptation of an anti-fascist anthem from Italy, “Bella Ciao.”
Video from the stands captured the protest, including the moment the stands erupted in noise and cheer after the 33rd minute. Many supporters waved flags with the Iron Front symbol in open defiance of the code of conduct.
Similar protests took place at the Portland Thorns game in the National Women’s Soccer League two days later.
The fans have drawn support from some members of the teams. Both teams took pictures with small banners affirming their “anti-fascist” and “anti-racist” bona fides.
Zarek Valentin, a defender on the Timbers, showed up at the game with the Iron Front symbol on his shirt, as did Thorns forward Christine Sinclair.
Ben Carrington, a sociology and journalism professor at the University of Southern California and the author of books about cultural, racial and political aspects of sports, said he saw the protests as the result of two main factors.
He said that the idea that there was a line between sports and politics in the United States has been crumbling for years, noting NBA player protests about police shootings, protests during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games and the push for pay equality on the U.S. Women’s national soccer team.
“The line that many try to draw between sports and politics has now been completely blurred,” he said. “It was always an artificial line.”
What makes the MLS case unique is the fan element of the protests, he said, because the culture of soccer, with its vibrant fan groups – many of which are linked to politics, both left and right, in other parts of the world.
“When it comes to soccer there is a fan base for activism that’s been there for many years in many countries. There is a bit of irony or hypocrisy on part of MLS – part of what it’s trying to do is import robust fan cultures we see in Mexico, England, and Germany,” he said. “You can understand why organizations want to take a stand and put the genie back in the bottle, but I think it’s too late. What’s a political symbol? Is the rainbow flag, for gay right and LGBT a political symbol? For many people it is.”
The league declined to say how many people have been or will be sanctioned for displaying the Iron Front symbol at the game last week.
But it said it stood by its code of conduct and the interpretation that the symbol was political.
“We support . . . basic human rights and values of inclusion and diversity – rainbow flags are an example of that,” Mark Abbott, the president and deputy commissioner of the MLS told The Post. “Signs that condemn racism are an example of that. Signs that condemn fascism. The disagreement here is not over any of those things – it’s over the signs or a banner that include association with Antifa, an outside organization. That we don’t believe should be in our stadiums.”
Lewis told The Post that the Timbers Army as well as one of the supporters clubs from Seattle had been warned by the league, but that they weren’t going to give up on the symbol.
“We’ve always kept the door open for them to change their mind on this,” he said. “And if they don’t? We have other options.”