[This story has been updated.]
The biggest story in Major League Soccer right now has nothing to do with the playoff race.
In response to an increased presence by neo-Nazi and alt-right elements at MLS games (most notably at NYCFC), supporters groups around the league have been making explicitly anti-fascist and anti-bigotry statements in the stands. The league has responded to this simmering intra-supporter conflict by identifying anti-fascist fans and their messaging as the problem.
MLS HQ has spent the past few months pressuring clubs to set and enforce bans on “political” messaging by fans, with a particular focus on anything bearing an Iron Front symbol. The flashpoints around this new policy have centered on Seattle and Portland, although clubs outside the Cascadia region have started their own crackdowns as well. The Timbers have gone so far as to ban fans for several games for non-compliance with the new policies.
Late last night, the Chicago Fire joined the growing list of MLS clubs ready and willing to die on this particular hill. With no mention at all on social media, the Fire quietly updated the Matchday FAQ page on their website to include new language on banners with political messaging.
Through ongoing discussions between Chicago Fire Soccer Club Staff and Supporter Group Leadership, it has been discussed and understood by all parties involved that our Club policy on Banners & Flags is as follows; Banners must be about or relate to the Club or the game. All banners (whether relating to the game or otherwise) must be submitted for approval and subsequently approved by Chicago Fire’s Supporter Liaison and Operations staff 48 hours prior to gameday kickoff. Chicago Fire Soccer Club Staff reserves the right to deny entry to any banner it deems falls outside of existing Club and MLS banner policy. These discussions were conducted in collaboration between Chicago Fire Staff & Supporter Group Leadership prior to and throughout the 2019 season.
Below is a screenshot of the page, in case the club decides to change or delete it later:
Among other things, this new language appears to be fairly broad in application, with banners only allowed to reference the game or the club. (This would seem to ban, for example, LGBTQ pride flags.) It also requires supporters to submit banners to club officials for prior approval no less than 48 hours before the next home game. Critically, with the change being published late last night, it is not technically possible to gain approval for banners in advance of tomorrow’s game against FC Dallas.
Previously, supporters groups and fans were given wide latitude with regards to signage, with notable exceptions for banners that were critical of (now-former) owner Andrew Hauptman. It would appear that the freedom of expression that supporters groups used to enjoy is being curtailed.
The restriction on subject matter makes the Fire’s implementation of the ban much more strict than, for example, the Timbers’ policy. It does not appear to go as far as Minnesota United’s policy, which bans all uses of the Iron Front symbol at home games, including on apparel.
Yesterday afternoon, and nearly 12 hours before the Fire officially published the rule change, Section 8 Chicago released a statement condemning the new policy.
Our statement regarding the @MLS ban on #IronFront imagery : https://t.co/ytCoft6Dgo #cf97 #AUnitedFront @ChicagoFire— Section 8 Chicago (@Section8Chicago) September 12, 2019
From the statement:
We vehemently disagree with this policy and again reiterate that we do not believe explicitly antifascist imagery is political in nature. That being said, Chicago Fire supporters need to be aware that that utilizing the Iron Front logo in displays will be considered a violation of the MLS Code of Conduct as a Level 2 offense. We urge that supporters comply with any requests from security or CFSC officials to remove banners, flags, or other materials that contain prohibited imagery.
I talked to S8C board member Meredith Miklasz this morning about the policy change. Over Twitter DMs, she told me that while Section 8 was indeed involved in meetings with club officials about Iron Front imagery at games, those meetings were ultimately unproductive. Miklasz told me that the board was informed of the final language of the policy in an email sent last night shortly before midnight.
Miklasz also disputed the club’s characterization of their meetings with Section 8 as being more open than they actually were.
“They’ve been less ‘discussions,’ they’re meetings where we are informed of their policy, and that it will not be changed.”
She continued: “The tone regarding the meeting portion of IF [Iron Front] policy was no nonsense. We argued our points, mainly that antifascism is a human rights issue. We were told that we were heard but that it wouldn’t change or affect the policy. It was final.
“[Club president] Nelson [Rodriguez] did say he hopes MLS finds a resolution, but until then, the Fire will abide the policy.”
Miklasz said discussions around Iron Front imagery were addressed head-on at a pre-scheduled meeting held on August 27th between S8C board members and high-ranking club officials. The meeting was agreed to before Iron Front imagery emerged as a league-wide issue. The club made a decision to allow Iron Front imagery at the last home game on August 17th, a 2-0 win over Philadelphia. In that August 27th meeting, officials told Section 8 board members they would be reversing their previous decision to bring club policy in line with the league mandate on antifascist banners and images. A follow-up meeting was held during Section 8’s regular monthly board meeting earlier this week.
Miklasz said that officials were not forthcoming with details on how the policy change would be communicated to supporters through the club’s official channels. Despite repeated verbal and written requests by Section 8 board members to publicize the changes, the Fire waited over two weeks to update their website and, as of press time, still have not referenced the changes on social media.
“[W]e had asked the Fire to release a statement stating their change in IF policy, since we 1) disagree with it 2) it’s not our policy 3) we aren’t their PR firm.”
According to Miklasz, the Fire emailed S8C board members yesterday morning with what was presented as final language of the new policy, with a follow-up email sent shortly before midnight last night sharing a link to the policy on the club website. She said the language shared in that first email yesterday morning and what was ultimately published online do not match up, noting the addition of a reference to discussions with supporter leadership; a broader application on what sorts of signage and materials the policy applies to; and other changes that did not come up in previous meetings.
“[T]hese are not policies we agreed to or were given a say in. We’re being told exactly how things are going to go. I personally believe they’re cracking down harder since we are holding them accountable about their lack of transparency to supporters regarding the IF ban.”
I asked her to clarify if she believed the published policy change ended up being harsher and more restrictive as a form of retaliation against Section 8 for attempting to bring some transparency and accountability to the process.
“I personally believe that. I cannot speak for the board. It goes beyond the IF change and into some other issues I would rather wait to speak on.”
We’ve reached out to the club for comment, and we will update this post if and when they respond.