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The Angle

How MLS Gets Politics so Wrong

by on 16 August 2019

When I opened The Black Hart of Saint Paul, I believed we could take the oldest gay bar in Saint Paul and add soccer. People could come for a game, trivia, a drag show— whatever— and no matter what would occupy a space that was safe and welcoming to the queer community. (I didn’t think this would be an easy task, but rather something we would work hard at achieving).

Returning home from some recent post-Minnesota United-game revelry, I got a text that a fellow fan, someone I had just been chatting with, had been accosted by a few transphobic men at the bar. They had given her shit about being transgender and then run off.

I felt furious, but also a bit helpless. I have worked so hard to try to keep the bar safe for patrons. I believed that even if we were bringing in a lot of new people (a majority of whom are straight men), we could still maintain a culture that would clearly direct transphobes, homophobes, and general assholes to walk into the sea.

This was a fiction of course, a fantasy of hetero, cis privilege that we could somehow erase this threat, or that I could always be there to personally instruct these men on exactly how to fuck themselves. In my simpler moments, I sometimes reduce being an “ally” to meaning telling transphobes and homophobes to fuck off so queer folk aren’t stuck doing it alone. While this is a constitutional duty I take seriously, there’s much more to being an ally than that.

This incident coincided with a new round of #STICKTOSPROTS opinions hitting Major League Soccer. In the past, the league has taken a pig-headed stance on what it decries as unwelcome “politics,” taking issue with “Refugees Welcome” banners while at the same time taking money from the US Department of Defense for military displays. During the most recent off-season, the league issued a new fan code of conduct that banned “political” displays altogether.

But what is “political?” MLS Commissioner Don Garber doesn’t want to talk about it. In a recent ESPN interview, Garber said: “A rainbow flag is not a political statement. In this case the Iron Front is a political organization.” When asked whether a MAGA hat is acceptable, he said: “It’s hard for me to respond to those kinds of things. I don’t want to get engaged with that. It’s very simple: We do not allow for political signage in our stadiums.”

Since Garber is laying down an opaque rule on the most complex of topics while refusing the discuss or clarify it, it’s left to us to talk about politics in sports.

To say that soccer is political does no more than acknowledge the long-established link between our lived experiences and the social structures that shape them. In much of the world, for example, merely being a queer person at a sporting event is uncomfortable or dangerous. To take another, we see the way in which immigration is intrinsically tied to soccer as racist and xenophobic language washes into the media mainstream. Look no further than the shooting in El Paso, where a right-wing racist traveled hours specifically to kill Latinos, whom he described as invaders. Among those killed were youth soccer coaches, at Wal-Mart that day raising money for their team.

Garber says he doesn’t want to address this. Yet he has selectively stepped in to say pro-LGBTQ programming is about human rights which, fooling no one, he suggests are apolitical. What he means is that LGBTQ rights, having defeated countless political and cultural antagonists, has now gone mainstream, and has passed into acceptance and marketability. We’ve got Pride Games and Pride week, when the league will toothlessly promote “Soccer for All” without ever saying the words “gay,” “lesbian,” and especially not “trans.” They say just enough to make money off queer rights without ever fighting for them, which would require affirmative support and discomfort. What Garber wants to ban is not politics but controversy.

Americans are continually told, simply and falsely, that politics is confined to elections, and that it has two equal sides which sit in balance like yin and yang. Conservative and liberal. Leftist and right-wing. Evangelical mom and Pink-haired tattoo artist. This danger of this contrived dualism, besides the fact that it does not accurately describe reality, is that it often elevates villains and morons into mainstream discourse. Look no further than the so-called “debate” between the scientific community and climate skeptics, or between the scientific community and people who refuse to vaccinate their children. It leads to overt white supremacists being simply considered “across the aisle” from people who oppose racism. Most people like to imagine themselves as “reasonable” and “centrist” and so they respond by stating: “both sides are bad. The trust is always somewhere in the middle.” What does it look like to claim the middle ground between human rights advocates and white supremacists? To borrow from Paulo Freire: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” -Paulo Freire

Likewise, MLS’s attempt to deny political discussion during soccer games is an inherently political act. Whether acknowledged or not, the political is already there. The threats of hate and violence exist whether someone brings a sign that says “Refugees Welcome” to a game or not. The refugees are already in the stadium; they’re already playing pick-up in the park; they’re already being threatened, deported en masse, and murdered. The only question is: will you explicitly counter this? Or will you ask the dinner table not to discuss such unpleasant topics?

I started with the incident in my own bar because I want to make clear what it means to be an ally. Most people who are uncomfortable with politics in a stadium would be upset if they heard someone in the stadium using racist slurs, and may even stand up to the person saying them. But direct, personal attacks don’t often happen right in front of us, and being an ally means much more than standing up when they do. Instead, being an ally requires dramatically reshaping public spaces to ensure the safety of the people with whom you are allied. It requires driving out hate and resetting unspoken expectations. It’s about making bigotry unacceptable at the ground level. “No One is Illegal,” “Refugees Welcome,” and “Anti-Fascism” are slogans that force people to contend with the invisible politics that shape the spaces we inhabit, regardless of whether we make it explicit on banners.

And to the question of what should and shouldn’t be allowed: stop policing altogether. Often people in MLS will respond with the hypothetical, “what if someone brings something offensively right wing in?” What are they going to do, bring in a “We approve of kids in cages” banner? Or, if as we’ve seen in NYCFC, there are Neo-Nazis that start to infiltrate our stands, does the league really need a special politics clause to get rid of Nazis?

Soccer has been such a joy in my life. The more the world goes to shit, the stronger my impulse to escape for two hours with a beer, 20,000 friends, and a chance to yell at grown men uninhibited. And so I understand why many people view an antifa flag as a killjoy. I don’t want to think about kids being put in cages or trans people being threatened during the game.

But I want to challenge everyone to think of a second false dichotomy: the choice between having fun and being serious. What if, while we’re all gathered together, we put that passion to good? What if we used that energy to raise money for refugees, for the homeless? What if we use some of that passion to tell people that are marginalized and unsafe that they are welcome here? What if we took joy in the fact that we get to come together and stand shoulder to shoulder with immigrants, queer folk, people of color, and marginalized people of all kinds? What if part of that escapist joy is in a world that feels so shitty and dark that we take a few places and we so radically rewrite the atmosphere that they become places of safety, inclusion, and celebration?