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Supporters Week: Where is the Line?

How do we nurture supporters culture while still keeping a degree of order?

MLS: Portland Timbers at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s an important question to ask when it comes to supporters culture. The world is full of shades of grey which makes it tough to set down a hard set of rules for fan behaviour. As a matter of fact i’ve even changed my opinion a few times as i’ve written this piece. So let’s ask the important question: where is the line?

One of the areas where MLS frequently tries to draw the line is at swearing. For a long time Don Garber and the front offices of many MLS teams have made efforts to eliminate the “you suck, asshole” chant. This is a ludicrous place to draw the line as it barely even brushes against profanity. The use of that phrase in a film would garner at most a PG-13 rating so to say it can’t be said at a football match is just silly.

There have been a number of attempted crackdowns on profanity. In 2013 the New York Red Bulls offered all of their supporters groups cash incentives to avoid using profanity. They all refused in an act which indicates a fundamental divide between the league and the supporters. The league wants a polished family friendly environment and the hardcore supporters want, well, not that. I am strongly of the opinion that swearing needs to be allowed at the football ground. It may not be classy or erudite but everybody needs an outlet to be a little naughty from time to time and such outlets are becoming more and more scarce. The soccer game, for many people, is a place to let loose and forget about their troubles. You can’t do that properly if you always have to watch your tongue. Instead of trying to make everything family friendly you should stop bringing your family to places you don’t deem family friendly.

However it is also clear there should be some reasonable restrictions on what you can say at the ground. The guidelines laid out by MLS’ “don’t cross the line” campaign (those being no sexism, racism, homophobia or discrimination) seem like reasonable restrictions for the stadium. It wouldn’t make sense for Orlando to have a pre game memorial for the Pulse nightclub shooting victims and then for a bunch of fans to chant “Puto” during the match. Even if you look at it from a purely business perspective, MLS is a growing league and can’t afford to alienate huge groups of potential fans like that. The stadium may be a place to go and blow off steam but it should also be an environment where you can go and be comfortable being who you are.

Now let’s examine a possible grey area. When Nemanja Vidic left Manchester United he gave a speech to the old Trafford faithful. The crowd then launched into a chant of “he comes from Serbia, he’ll F****** murder ‘ya.” Now technically this would probably fall under the restrictions outlined under “don’t cross the line” but it doesn’t really feel hateful. It feels like it’s all in good fun but if we apply the rules totally to the letter of the law it wouldn’t be allowed. Something to consider I suppose.

Another way in which supporters groups express themselves is through banners and Tifos. These have to be pre approved by the club which gets in the craw of many supporters. To a certain extent I sympathize with the club as there have been incidents with other teams. Toronto FC supporters for example once erected (no pun intended) a banner of a woman in blue performing fellatio on a guy in a TFC kit with the caption “Montreal sucks.” I think this aught not be allowed in the stadium under the “don’t cross the line” doctrine outlined above. However the fact that banners and tifos need to be pre approved kind of undermines the authenticity of supporters groups. Part of what makes supporters groups great is that they can have a bit of edge to them. Not a lot but a little more than just shouting go Whitecaps go for 90 minutes. For everything to be totally controlled by the club in this way is necessarily limiting the supporters’ ability to express themselves and to be creative. I’m not quite sure how it could be done but I feel there must be a way to find a happy medium between blow job banners and corporate approved banners.

A possible grey area for banners is when they stray in to non soccer related messages. In 2015 a small group of fans was asked to leave after holding up a “refugees welcome” banner because it was considered to political. The Whitecaps claimed that the fans were ejected for being disorderly but than made a seemingly contradictory statement to the CBC so it’s a little unclear. For the sake of argument though, let’s say that they were ejected because their banner was to political. Is that a good enough reason for turning fans away? The banner certainly doesn’t “cross the line” so it seems like it should be allowed. I can kind of sympathize with the desire of clubs to not have political messages on banners as it might give the impression that they have a strong stance on something the club has no reason to have a strong stance on. In Scotland, for example, fans of Celtic held up banners in support of Palestine when the club played Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is obviously an issue that gets people fired up and there is really no reason for most football clubs to have an official stance on it so I can see why clubs would want nothing to do with those types of banners. However I think it’s a stretch to say that “refugees welcome” is as controversial a statement. It is after all more or less Canadian policy. Much like the chant for Vidic it just feels like something that aught to be allowed.

This article asks a lot of questions. It’s my hope that you will chime in below with your thoughts on some of them. Just make sure that as you do you keep things respectful and don’t cross the line.