TUKWILA — The Sounders’ front office gathered local media Friday to issue a public apology to its supporters groups and deliver a message: It’s still a soccer club that’s proud to hold a sign that reads “Anti-racist/Anti-fascist/Always Seattle.”
Doubt regarding the organization’s values began to rise during the team’s loss to rival Portland at CenturyLink Field on July 21. Approximately 45 minutes after supporters behind the stadium’s south goal unveiled their largest tifo (coordinated display of signage), it proudly waved an Iron Front flag in the Sounders’ green colors.
The Iron Front was an anti-Nazi paramilitary organization founded in Germany in the 1930s. Historical websites vary on the specific meaning behind the symbol — three arrows pointing Southwest — but it’s broadly accepted as anti-fascist.
MLS altered its Fan Code of Conduct before the 2019 season to regard the Iron Front flag as political, thus banning the signage in its stadiums.
Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer led an in-person discussion July 25 with representatives from Emerald City Supporters — the independent supporters group of the Sounders, which has Sections 121, 122 and 123 as its designated CenturyLink Field seating area — regarding the conduct violation.
In a follow-up letter dated July 26 to ECS co-presidents Shawn Wheeler and Tom Biro to formally issue the violation, Hanauer and Bart Wiley, the club’s chief operating officer, equated the Iron Front with far-right groups the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. It also cited Antifa, which is short for anti-fascist and is a loose group that aggressively opposes far-right movements.
“Messages, banners, flags or any other symbols that represent an association to a political group will not be allowed in CenturyLink Field,” the letter states. “This includes, but is not limited to, Antifa, Iron Front, Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer.”
Taylor Graham, Sounders vice president of business operations and marketing, spoke to reporters Friday after practice at Starfire Sports on behalf of the ownership group. Hanauer was unavailable due to travel.
“For that, we first and foremost want to put our hand up and say, ‘That’s not fair, and we apologize for those words,’ putting them in that context,” Graham said of the letter’s construction.
Graham said he and other members of the front office have had multiple internal conversations as well as conversations with season-ticket holders who were either offended by the Iron Front flag or the letter’s wording, which was made public via social media by ECS. Another violation by ECS would result in a three-match suspension, according to the letter.
ECS has since been joined in support by other fan groups Gorilla FC, which identifies as the Antifa supporters group, and Sounders FC Alliance, which represents all season-ticket holders. Also aligning with ECS is Portland’s 107 Independent Supporters Trust, which bills itself as “the engine that fuels the Timbers Army and Rose City Riveters,” the fan groups for the Portland Timbers MLS team and Portland Thorns women’s professional soccer team, respectively.
The Seattle groups had a conference call with Hanauer, Graham and coach Brian Schmetzer on Thursday that both sides say was positive. However, based on discussions with ECS members, the controversy is not only the association with far-right groups but what MLS deems political appears to be inconsistent.
In 2017, the complete Sounders ownership group stood in alliance with ECS when two of its members were removed from a playoff match at Vancouver for displaying the “Anti-racist/Anti-fascist/Always Seattle” signage. It has flown since and was grandfathered into the league’s conduct revision.
MLS commissioner Don Garber, in a recent ESPN interview, wouldn’t take a stance regarding “Make America Great Again” red hats worn by supporters of President Donald Trump. Garber did support the Pride flag, which has origins stemming from a riot at a New York City gay bar. But he reiterated the league’s belief that the Iron Front is a political organization and its imagery has been appropriated to entice violence.
“Our stadiums are not environments where our fans should be expressing political views because you then are automatically opening yourself up to allowing counterviews,” Garber told ESPN from the MLS All-Star Game in Orlando. “Then we’re getting into a situation which is unmanageable and really not why the vast, vast majority of fans go to games.”
The Sounders’ supporters groups, with Portland’s 107 Independent Supporters Trust, have since issued a statement to continue to challenge MLS. Some members of Sounders supporters groups plan to wear an altered Iron Front logo on T-shirts, where the arrows are replaced by trees.
The fans are asking MLS to rescind its ban on the flag, remove “political” from its code of conduct and work with experts knowledgeable about human rights to craft rules that support inclusion and anti-discrimination.
Graham said he didn’t suspect the issues are resolved and wouldn’t comment on whether a shirt is permissible. There are no scheduled meetings between the groups, the Sounders front office is seemingly waiting to see what emerges at their home match Sunday night against Sporting Kansas City.
“Our body of work over the last 11 years is consistent and not indicative of that half-sentence,” Graham said of the letter. “We also are super cognizant that trust is built brick by brick, and it comes down pretty quick. This is a relationship that means a ton to ownership, and that’s why the time and attention and thought has been put into this the way that we have.”