Major League Soccer and representatives from its teams’ supporters groups, including two for the Sounders FC, met in Las Vegas on Thursday to discuss mounting tension over the league’s ban of the Iron Front flag in its stadiums.
The symbol – three arrows pointed Southwest inside a circle – is from an anti-Nazi paramilitary organization originated in Germany in the 1930s and is now widely regarded as anti-fascist. MLS updated its Fan Code of Conduct this season and guides its teams to deem the imagery as political and thus forbidden as signage.
Thursday was the first opportunity for the sides to discuss the matter face-to-face. MLS had four representatives while the supporters groups had eight, including leadership from Seattle’s Emerald City Supporters and Gorilla FC, Portland’s Timbers Army and the Independent Supporters Council, which represents fans for numerous North American men’s and women’s soccer leagues.
No resolution was made regarding the Iron Front flag, but a teleconference was scheduled for Tuesday to further discuss the issue. MLS did propose a collaborative process for reviewing its Fan Code of Conduct to be completed by the start of the 2020 season, which satisfies one of three demands the supporters groups released in July to resolve the conflict.
Removing “political” from its conduct policies and lifting the Iron Front flag ban are the other two.
“(MLS is) committed to evaluating the treatment of the Iron Front flag for the remainder of the 2019 season, while conducting the broader evaluation of the Fan Code of Conduct,” said Mark Abbott, the MLS president and deputy commissioner, in a released statement. Abbott was present at the meeting and kept MLS commissioner Don Garber informed.
Timbers Army long displayed the Iron Front flag infrequently until the 2019 updated policy change. When it joined ECS and Gorilla FC in waving the flag at a match between the clubs in July at CenturyLink Field, the supporters groups were reprimanded in a letter from Sounders co-owner Adrian Hanauer and Bart Wiley, the club’s chief operating officer. The letter put the Iron Front in the same category as, among others, the Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group.
“Messages, banners, flags or any other symbols that represent an association to a political group will not be allowed in CenturyLink Field,” the letter stated. “This includes, but is not limited to, Antifa, Iron Front, Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.”
The Sounders front office publicly apologized for the wording but is upholding MLS’ ban.
In response, the archrival supporters groups went 33 minutes without cheering and waving any flags when Portland hosted Seattle at Providence Park in August. And when an ECS member was removed from a Sounders match at CenturyLink Field on Sunday for waving a massive Iron Front flag, a bulk of supporters also walked out in solidarity.
Similar protests have occurred across the league and the hashtag #AUnitedFront was started on social media to show support in lifting the ban. Fans also started wearing shirts with traditional or altered Iron Front symbols, using trees, feathers, or guitars.
The Sounders continue to express they are a club that is “anti-fascist, anti-racist, always Seattle” as a popular flag in its supporters groups section reads. In 2017, Hanauer challenged MLS policy to permit the signage when an ECS member was removed from a playoff match in Vancouver for holding the sign.
MLS and the Sounders front office don’t believe their view of the Iron Front flag contradicts their stance regarding human rights. The league, which currently has two openly gay players, has long hosted Pride Nights and in 2013 began a “Don’t Cross the Line” initiative which promoted equality, fair play and creating environments where everyone involved in the sport, including fans, is treated with dignity and respect. The movement transitioned to “Soccer for All” in 2018 and reaffirmed MLS’s drive to create positive social change.
The flag, MLS believes based on its research, is too closely tied to Antifa (short for anti-fascist), a far-left group that isn’t opposed to violence in its push against far-right organizations. The league is concerned its presence could incite violence at matches.
MLS supporters groups point to the Pride flag, which has origins stemming from a riot at a New York City gay bar, as being political along with military insignia on uniforms and singing of the U.S. national anthem prior to every match.
MLS is not considering removing all signage as a possible resolution. It is the only professional U.S. sports league that encourages a culture of waving flags, unveiling massive tifos and chanting – even those with cursing – during its games.
“We’re extremely frustrated that there’s been plenty of time to be able to make a decision on this in the room,” said ECS co-president Tom Biro, who attended the meeting in Vegas. “Not that it would be OK with me if they said, ‘No, it’s still banned’ but any sort of decision and the fact that they still needed to go back and consult with other people at this juncture just seemed like a miss. …I’m optimistic that we will have a productive discussion on Tuesday and some decision can be made in this matter.”