Chants threaten to mar Orlando City's expansion season in MLS

Eric Adelson
·Columnist
Chants threaten to mar Orlando City's expansion season in MLS

ORLANDO, Fla. – Before playing the Los Angeles Galaxy here last month, Kaka and a group of players from Orlando City SC hosted some Special Olympic athletes. It was a nice moment for the competitors and for the club, which has the former Brazil star (and Special Olympics global ambassador) as its main attraction.

However, during last weekend's match with the Columbus Crew, chants including the word "retarded" allegedly were heard cascading down from the crowd at the Citrus Bowl. The chants were not directed at any player or official, yet they were part of songs that have embarrassed the club before and have persisted despite a much bigger profile for the team during its inaugural season in Major League Soccer.

"Following Saturday's home match, we have contacted and are working directly with the leadership of our supporter groups on this issue," wrote VP of communication Leonardo Santiago in an email to Yahoo Sports. "They are in full cooperation with us in eliminating certain terms from future use."

It's not just a bunch of random fans. Words like "retarded" and "mental" were on the chants page of Iron Lion Firm, a supporter group officially approved by the team. "We were founded in 2011 on the principles of Respect, Support, Pride and Brotherhood," states the website.

Yet those qualities are missing in this case. Orlando City's Code of Conduct forbids "chants with inappropriate language, including any comments regarding racism, sexual orientation, ethnicity, etc." as its first tenet.

"The r-word for individuals with intellectual disabilities is the equivalent to the n-word," said Amy Van Bergen, executive director of the Down Syndrome Association of Central Florida. "It is that offensive. It is that degrading."

Van Bergen said there has been "a lot of chatter" in her community about the chants.

Ryan Hayes, who was a season ticket holder even before the team's move to MLS, wrote to the club about the chants last year and was assured by Santiago that "we take this matter very seriously."

Then Hayes, who is president of the board for the Down Syndrome Association in Orlando, heard the chants again on Saturday and he wrote the team again.

"I'm personally outraged," Hayes said. "I have asked Orlando City about this before. I told them I wasn't going to renew my tickets. They apologized and said they would address it. In a recent email, they said they were embarrassed by it. I believe the front office, but I also believe they are in control of the supporter group."

A query to the Iron Lion Firm was not immediately returned. But on Thursday, the supporters group responded on its Facebook page.

However, even after this was posted, the Iron Lion Firm site still listed the original chant with the word "retarded."

Asked if there would be any discipline for the most recent chants, Santiago replied by email that "We will work with supporter club leadership to identify any individuals who continue to violate the Code of Conduct … We have impressed upon the leadership of supporter groups the importance that this be corrected."

This incident threatens to mar a wildly successful time for Orlando City, which joined MLS this season and has played for crowds as large as 62,000 in the renovated Citrus Bowl. Last week, the club announced that its new stadium would be privately funded and return tax money to the city. Orlando has embraced the team and its leader Kaka, the Special Olympics ambassador.

So has the Iron Lion Firm, which posted a photo of Kaka on its website, right next to the chants. The caption for the photo was "Ricardo Kaka. Enough said."

Van Bergen believes more than enough has been said.

"We can't sit idly by," she said, "and say this is OK."

UPDATE: Iron Lion Firm followed up with another post on Facebook.