Simple though it may seem, there are no universal solutions to this problem. No way of solving it that will satisfy everybody. It’s a vexing issue. One that will only continue to distress fans of Major League Soccer.
On Friday, HuffPost published a damning exposé of the right-wing presence in Major League Soccer’s second New York franchise, NYCFC. (Full disclosure: HuffPost and Yahoo Sports are both Verizon subsidiaries.)
The story reaffirmed the open secret that the fan sections at New York City FC have been infiltrated by an unapologetic and openly right-wing element. The story identified NYCFC fans, ostensibly anyway, who attended the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year and were members of the now-disbanded Proud Boys extremist group. And it revealed that the club had been aware of the problem since its inaugural season in 2015 but took several years to act.
The deeply reported piece, released on the eve of the new MLS season, made a big splash.
On Sunday, league commissioner Don Garber addressed the story and the persistent issues in NYCFC’s fan sections. His argument boiled down to the oft-used response that the extremism doesn’t actually take place in the stadium, and that accusations mostly rest on hearsay. “Our job is not to judge and profile any fan,” Garber told a group of reporters, per the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It is to manage how our fans are both interacting with each other, and how they’re behaving in our stadiums.”
“The last thing this league is going to do is start getting into profiling who people are and what their backgrounds are,” Garber continued. “That is a slippery slope. That’s not something we’re going to engage in.”
In other words: misbehavior in stadiums will be addressed, but thought will not be policed.
And herein lay the trouble. There really isn’t a whole lot anybody can do when men with extreme ideologies enter the stadium but leave behind little or no proof that they’ve done anything wrong – or against the rules, anyway.
Certainly, Garber’s answer was unsatisfying. And he was quickly panned online for his failure to denounce neo-Nazis outright.
He should probably have gone in stronger, but the thrust of what Garber was saying also isn’t wrong. Profiling fans by their politics, or attempting to divine ideology or intent, flies in the face of what this country stands for. Or what most of us would like it to stand for, at any rate.
There’s no way to adjudicate this fairly. You can’t administer some kind of ideological purity test before selling fans their tickets. And while it certainly does seem like NYCFC took its sweet time in acting, you also can’t blame the club for being cautious in building a case to evict paying customers.
Maybe the larger issue is that MLS built and marketed its league around its hardcore fans. That’s the differentiator, the main thing it has going for it over the placid atmosphere of professional basketball or baseball, where fan noise is piped into the stadium through a PA system. MLS’s biggest selling point is a live experience unlike any other stateside.
But that has cornered the league into an ongoing and delicate tangle between its clubs and fans about what’s permissible and what isn’t. Fans, somewhat understandably, feel entitled to a certain freedom in their own sections. Many of those, it should be noted, were designed to the fan groups’ exact specifications, in order to maximize the effect of their clamor. As the league breaks ever further into the mainstream, necessitating a sanitized product, that’s created an implacable tension.
When stadium atmosphere is such a big part of your customer experience, delving too deeply into the undercurrents that govern it isn’t a terribly clever strategy. And so, for a long time, the league didn’t. It regulated violence and vulgarity, but the harder questions weren’t always asked.
Banning anybody credibly accused of associating with extreme right-wing groups is straightforward on its face. But then it took the well-covered Proud Boys attack on protestors in Manhattan in October just to pull together evidence of the links between the group and the NYCFC fans who straddle both worlds.
Only a major news event provided the proof for the club to ban a well-known right-wing figure. Others apparently remain. It’s just a hard thing to pull off in the shadowy world of extreme-right politics. The club says it has banned more than 30 people from its stadium since 2015, without specifying how many were expelled for their fringe politics.
It’s an impossible task for a professional soccer league, or its teams, to keep track of what their fans are doing away from the stadium. Or indeed to just accept the accusations of those at the other end of the political spectrum. It’s not the business MLS has chosen to be in. And so it can either change that and hire an army of investigators to plunge deeply into the fabric of every one of its supporters’ groups for any objectionable associations. Or it can continue to be accused by the left side of the spectrum of being too soft on the right end.
The league, really, is in an impossible position.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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