The new regulations stop supporters groups from displaying messages supporting equality, inclusion and humanitarian messages because they are deemed as ‘political statements’.
Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers are among clubs who have banned signs and flags from supporters groups displaying the “Iron Front” symbol which the clubs say has become appropriated and used for the antifa movement.
The MLS is the only professional league among the top five sports in the United States with a code of conduct that expressly bans political signage.
The league’s fan code of conduct, implemented this season, prohibits “using (including on any sign or other visible representation) political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior.”
MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said the league worked with all its teams to devise the policy.
“I think it was the belief of the league and the clubs that fans are at our games to enjoy the game and that there is a place for third-party political organizations or groups to express their views, but that place isn’t within our stadiums,” Abbott told The Associated Press.
The Independent Supporters Council of North America are leading protests against the regulations, which this week even meant a sign asking for guns to be banned removed from a stadium.
“We, as an organization, feel strongly on ensuring that displays of human rights are not mistaken for political statements. Political engagement is sometimes necessary in securing human rights for all, but that does not make the message of human rights inherently political,” the Council said in a statement.
The MLS could look to see how UEFA has dealt with the same issue. In December 2016 the UEFA Disciplinary Committee released a statement on political banners after FC Barcelona were charged on two occasions for their fans displaying Catalan flags, which at the time might have been interpreted in Spain as a political message in support of a referendum and independence of Catalonia.
Barcelona twice appealed the charge and UEFA changed its mind, noting:
“While UEFA does not want football matches to be used for the purposes of political demonstrations, it also would have no wish to sanction any club or national association in situations where no reasonable person could object to, or be offended by, a particular message conveyed at a football match.”
This leaves room to argue that messages promoting equality, social causes, and humanitarian messages, such as antifascist symbolism would not be objected by any reasonable person and thus should not be sanctioned or prohibited.
MLS’ wording around the new rules need clarifying to reflect on this. The league has a duty to develop the game of football in USA to make it more inclusive and welcoming for everyone, which includes messaging.
Antifascist messages are an integral part of that. Those supporters in the stands promoting social inclusion and equality at MLS games should not be punished for doing so.