At the risk of sounding a bit cliché, everything in life has to be kept in balance. The human experience often tips the scale back and forth between joy and grief, elation and boredom, structure and chaos, responsibility and personal freedom. Without being consciously aware of it, mankind will organize life into a structure that fits this balance.
It should come as no surprise that to the most passionate fans of the Chicago Fire that - while living a life of extreme enthusiasm for the Fire - there must be a balance with other areas of life: fan culture with other friends, personal recreation with family responsibility or the love for the beautiful game with plentiful times when there is frustration at game-day results. Balance is necessary within the community of supporters as well. An equilibrium must be kept between the need to draw in new fans and the need to recognize the stalwarts who've paid their dues; or between the need to express frustration with club leadership and the need to support the Fire as a team. When the supporter culture has differences of opinion, the need to hash them out it must be balanced with the need to remain productive and move forward as an organized unit.
I feel very fortunate to be part of such a rich and welcoming supporter’s community, where good-hearted and well-intentioned people can participate in passionate and productive debate in a respectful and forward-thinking way. Differences of opinion, when forwarded in a progressive way, will help improve the growth of the community. In late April, when Hot Time In Old Town released an interview with Section 8 leadership, a discussion began on the blog about how much of a role we, as an organized group and as Section 8 leadership, should play in addressing concerns with ownership. Some felt that the ISA and its leadership were "in bed" with ownership, and instead should take more of an active role in chastising ownership and the club when they are wrong. Should the Independent Supporters' Association (ISA) be taking more of a stand against club ownership? What specific role should the ISA play when it comes to leadership in relation to the Chicago Fire as a business?
I, like the rest of the Hot Time's community, was personally was outraged last season when owner Andrew Hauptman released an editorial bashing the supporters community. In addition, I was enraged the Fire shocked the community by announcing plans to dissolve Sector Latino if they were not able to sell enough seats (still time to save Sector Latino. Click here!). These issues, without a doubt, were only two in many infractions by ownership deserving of the loyal fan base's disdain. Without going into all the mud that has been thrown, there is enough bad blood to make me significantly irate with ownership and (at times) the front office in general. The question is, how do I as a fan balance this distaste for ownership with my love and support of the club?
It makes complete sense that an independent fan can and should express frustration at ownership. Each of us as fans must vocalize our opinions and use what fora we have to express our distaste for poor actions from leadership. This should apply to the leadership in the supporters’ community as well. In addition, it is very much the role of both the professional and fan based press to express dissatisfaction. The only way these areas improve is by people showing their distaste in the direction of ownership and club. I do not, however, believe it is productive for the Section 8 or the ISA leadership to take a role based in negativity in the hope of changing the direction of ownership or leadership of the organization.
It is clearly a tough balance to achieve for the most committed fans of the Fire - but separating the fan perspective from the fan cultures’ perspective is essential. With all sports, a fan’s nature is to be reactive to what is occurring, especially when it is offensive. I think that it is good and healthy for fans to push an organization to be better. I just think that fans, as an organized group such as the ISA, should avoid attacks on ownership. Sure, a case could be made that a united group of fans can affect change more effectively when together as a group. As someone who spends part of college as a grassroots organizer, I know this to be a valid form of advocacy.
The problem in a sports setting is that this approach, no matter how structured and focused on ownership, will look like an attack on the club and players if it is coming from an organized group of the most committed fans. Well-intentioned efforts can cause unforeseen consequences that benefit neither the supporters nor the organization if trust is lost. The leadership of the supporters culture must rise above the fray to maintain a good working relationship with the club.
It is better that supporters take their frustration out in a personal way without bringing Section 8 into it. This is easier said than done in a world of Twitter, where a organization such as the ISA (and its umbrella organizations) can get tagged in a tweet that makes it appear sanctioned. I believe this is part of the reason twitter seems so confrontational at times. Everyone feels that they need to respond to let others know where they stand on an issue, lest they be mistaken for a different point of view. As useful as a tool that social media is in building community, it can just as easily cause disunity amongst supporters.
A long time fan of the Fire and leader in the community said to me recently that the goal of section 8 should be to cheer to the point where the Harlem End sounds louder than a jet engine. This goal is reflected loud and clear in the ISA's mission statement ". . . to unite all Chicago Fire fans, to create a dominant in-stadium force unseen in any American team sport and to establish a home-field advantage whenever the Chicago Fire play.". If the ISA were to focus on challenging ownership at every turn, constantly holding signs that criticize ownership, or were to decrease game day energy due to frustration at ownership we as a community are only allowing ownership to take our focus away from what is really most important which is using our energy to help the Fire win.
The leadership of the ISA is responsible for forwarding the organizations mission. To a large extent the board must have a positive and functional working relationship with the Chicago Fire in order to create a safe and effective cheering environment that encourages participation and support. If the Chicago Fire, their leadership and the Toyota Park security do not trust the community then the primary goal of a loud and high impact cheering section can not succeed. Consequently, it is unfair to expect the leadership of the ISA to do anything that does not forward the mission by verbally challenging ownership or not establishing a positive work relationship. Once there is a positive relationship with ISA leadership and the Fire, then there will be the possibility of influencing changes. Having a productive working relationship is what we as supporters groups and independent supporters can and should hold the communities leadership’s feet to the Fire on, not being more vocal about the organizations infractions.
Balance is important in all the things we do as supporters. If the Harlem End is going to be full to the point where the volume can impact the match, it is inevitable that we need more fans in the section - but new fans bring a different set of goals and desires. New fans might not know the songs and might not be prepared to sing throughout the match at first, but they represent a necessary future for the section. How the supporters’ community welcomes new people in section needs to be balanced with the expectation to keep the volume high. It's a singing section, but people need to be taught. Converting new fans to stalwarts is not only the role of ISA leadership but also the rest of the community. These goals are all best reached by maintaining a positive working relationship with the Fire as an organization.
My wife recently accused me of wanting to make everyone happy. There is truth to her observation and I do tend towards diplomacy. However, I do understand the reality that there is value to differences of opinions when used in productive debate that impels us all to do better. Being able to see what issues exist in the Chicago Fire organization and reacting to them as individuals will ultimately help things improve. When many voices speak, problems can be identified and changes can occur for the better.
Maintaining a balance of open communication between the Chicago Fire and the ISA will allow the ISA to help influence the organization’s ownership and leadership positively when issues arise instead of provoking leadership of the Fire and ruining trust. As a supporters’ culture, it seems much more important to me to focus in-house and take the steps that are needed to better affect change on the pitch in support of the club than to try to change the front office as a group.