Minutes before kickoff of the Fire’s home game against the New York Red Bulls, Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez addressed the crowd from the center circle. His brief comments represented the club’s first official response to the proliferation of ¡P*to! chants among Fire fans and throughout MLS.
Chicago Fire (@ChicagoFire) July 31, 2016
Rodriguez made it clear that homophobic speech and behavior was unacceptable and that anyone caught yelling that chant risked ejection from Toyota Park.
Immediate reactions were mixed. Plenty of people on Fire Twitter praised the move, but it wasn’t unanimous. Some fans in attendance also reported boos in response to Rodriguez’ speech.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the announcement came on Pride Night, when the team and fans made public (if incomplete) shows of support for the LGBT community. The club offered $21 tickets in the Corner Kick section, with $5 of each sale going to the Center On Halsted. Section 8 also held a Pride-themed tailgate benefit for a Christian missionary group and held up banners in support of LGBT people.
I’ve written recently about homophobia and transphobia in American soccer culture and in MLS specifically. (During reporting with my collaborator we tried to reach out to both the Fire front office and the Section 8 board; neither returned our requests for comment.) A few things came to light during the reporting and writing of the piece:
- There is widespread disagreement over what constitutes homophobic and transphobic speech, as well as what, if anything, should be done with it. (Indeed, several responses to the question of dealing with homophobia in MLS amounted to "tell the gays to grow thicker skin.")
- Self-policing is an imperfect tool to address bigotry and harassment, not least because it asks fans to put themselves into tense and potentially dangerous situations by initiating a confrontation (and to do so when they may not be personally affected by homophobia).
- What does work is clearly-communicated boundaries and reasonable, consistently-enforced consequences for crossing them.
With regards to that third point, Rodriguez and the Fire seem to be making headway on the boundaries. But what about enforcement? Is the team truly prepared to walk the walk? Will they be directing Monterrey Security to confront fans and eject them?
While this is a definite good first step for the Fire, it’s the follow-through that matters. Whether the club is willing to walk the walk on this is an open question. It’s also unclear what, if anything, Section 8 will do to address the issue on the ground now that the club has signalled the direction they want to go in. And what about supporters groups who decide to double-down and make a stand for their right to yell hate speech without consequence?
Still, Rodriguez’ comments represented some much-needed (and long overdue) forward movement in Chicago to address a deeply contentious issue. Let’s hope this is the start of a journey toward a more inclusive community.