Let me put this in terms that are broadly understandable to most Canadians.
In 2004, the NHL became one of the few sports leagues in the world to cancel its entire season and championship for greed. It locked the players out, suspended operations and went to war, so the owners of the teams could stop themselves from paying market prices for players. Forgotten in all of this were the fans.
Now you can say what you want about the difference between soccer fans and hockey fans, but I hate that whole debate.. As far as I’m concerned, no matter what the sport (bar perhaps roller hockey), people do come to love their teams beyond any rational explanation for it. I grew up in Toronto as a Maple Leafs fan, and so I feel like from the time I was a baby I knew about this irrational love. There is simply no way to explain the Leafs Nation without using the term irrational.
It took something extraordinary to break that irrational hold the Leafs had on my heart. The lockout of 2004 was the final act of being taken for granted that caused the scales to fall from my eyes. For the sake of greed, my heart had been toyed with and no amount of dreamy devotion to my formerly home town team could overcome the most cynical of moves. The curtain was lifted, and there was no way to unsee what I had seen. I left hockey for good and began my slow return to football fandom, nurtured as it was during my three years living on the edge of North London, in the land dominated by this year’s second best Premier League team.
One of the reasons I love football and supporter culture so much is the nature of the intimate relationship between players and spectators. Growing up in Toronto I knew that intimacy. Several Leafs players lived nearby, and we dated their daughters, hung out with their sons and saw them around the neighbourhood. Even though they were our idols, they were also part of us.
Football support has its roots in that kind of relationship. The term “supporters” I think partially comes from the way that people gathered to create sporting clubs with annual dues that would field teams in a league with other clubs. The supporters would come out to cheer their team on, representing the colours under which they had organized community, and through which they expressed their genuine love for their place.
Supporter culture is folk culture of the highest order. Look below the levels of global football marketing and you find that same spirit today in the red stands of working class Olympiakos in Athens, the vintage wood sheds of Blundell Park in the fishing town of Grimsby, or even the leafy parks of Vancouver, where clubs like Meraloma have a long standing history of local support in rugby, cricket, baseball, swimming and football. In the Southside we wave Vancouver flags at every match, because we know who we are, and we stand not just for the team but for our place.
No matter the team, the league, the executives or the TV deals, we are here, supporting Vancouver. It is said, with truth, that the only permanent job in football is the supporter. That is a universal truth because love of place, longing for community and celebration of both is a basic human thing.
Football teams are supported by that, materially and spiritually. They should never take that for granted.
So when a team and a league does take that for granted, supporters respond.
Last week Matthew Parsons, a member of the District Ultras, one of DC United’s three main supporter groups received a one year ban for lighting a smoke grenade off outside the bleak confines of RFK Stadium in Washington DC. He is a selfless leader and volunteer for the Ultras and the incident occurred at the beginning of a unity march, in which all three DCU supporters groups were marching together for the first time in a while to celebrate unity and recapture the feeling of support and togetherness that distinguished DC United fans for years. The ban is league wide, meaning he is not allowed to watch his team in any MLS venue or attend any MLS events.
What he did was “allegedly illegal,” according to his banning order, but he has not been charged with breaking the law. He was not afforded a chance to appeal his ban either, because there is no due process in the MLS halls of justice. Instead the team and MLS itself, whose security department is headed by a former UK police officer who was also formerly security head for the English FA, just banned him. And they also banned the Ultras from having flags, flag poles and drums at the next match. Done.
Now you might be forgiven if you are thinking “but wait! Doesn’t the MLS and its teams use images of fans and smoke to sell the atmosphere and to make MLS a different kind of professional sport in North America?” The answer to your question is yes. Yes they do. Let that sink in for a moment. If you think the players are now confused by what constitutes a tackle, think how supporters now feel by what constitutes support.
RFK Stadium is a difficult place to make atmosphere and DCU supporters have a tough job. It is an all but abandoned white elephant, and even 14,000 people in there can barely raise a whisper. When you see DC United on TV you are looking across to the sparsely dispersed thousands in the “loud” section where the District Ultras, the Screaming Eagles and the Barra Brava are doing their best to cheer for a team that was once the elite in MLS and who, as recently as two years ago, posted the worst record in MLS history while still winning the US Open Cup.
It must do your head in these days to be a supporter of DC United, and it certainly can’t be helped by the league and the team you love applying a retroactive ban to a supporter who is trying to raise the pride and unity again behind a team that has provided a few years of dire disappointment punctuated by surprising moments of elation. It must especially do your head in, because under previous ownership, being a part of soccer in Washington felt like family.
On a widely circulated Facebook post last week, Paul Kent, another District Ultras volunteer drummer and organizer said this:
“[We] want to bring back something that’s been lost over the last four or five years – the sense of family. And that’s not just amongst the groups, mind you. That’s between supporters and management. Since the clearinghouse a few years back, the tone has changed entirely. We lost relationships in that purge. We lost friends. And the people who came to replace them don’t talk to people the way it used to be. And the attempts at outreach, honestly, ring hollow. Roundtable discussions clearly aren’t productive if well-known members of the community can get treated in the way they have this week.
You know why my heart’s broken…? Because in an attempt to make things better, things became worse than ever.
Let’s talk about tradition. Smoke is part of that. Smoke has been used not just in our team’s promotional material, but all around the league. Legal smoke, at that – smoke devoid of potassium sulphate, which is banned in this city. When the purge happened, suddenly that tradition was lost. But not just the smoke – the days of Will Chang walking the lots, chatting with whoever walked by, is lost. I’ve never met Thohir and Levien. I couldn’t point them out in a line-up. The days of Christian Gomez jumping into the stands to beat a drum with the community when he was injured is lost. The days where this was treated not just as a moneymaking enterprise, but as a proper family, have been lost. And at the same time, those very people that you punish are part of the moneymaking.”
And that’s the rub.
So this week, while the Whitecaps visited Washington, the Ultras hung their banner upside down, put up a hastily spray painted note that simply said “Gone Fishin’” and they abandoned their section for the first half. A few went to stand with the two Whitecaps supporters who hung a District Ultras banner next to the Canadian and Whitecaps flags in solidarity. If you watched the match with an eye for the supporters sections, you will have noticed the quiet corner at the left hand side of your screen.
Last weekend, across MLS and the USL and even beyond, supporters groups rallied to protest this action against the District Ultras. In New York City, Dallas, Montreal, Toronto, Sacramento and Hong Kong, protest banners hung from railings and walls. At Thunderbird Stadium at UBC, the Curva Collective, Southsiders and Rain City Brigade made a smoke-filled demonstration of unity and solidarity.
Maybe it was all under the radar, but here is why it matters. The US and Canada professional sports leagues are the anomaly in the way the world plays games. Single entity leagues running conspiratorial operations for the benefit of their colluding franchise owners is highly unusual. But elsewhere on the planet, even the biggest football teams in the world are still local clubs. It is that local root that puts a spell on supporters, that makes football so important for people. It is why in Canada and the US, teams use the city name in their moniker. It gives the impression of local. It plays on local sentiment. It sells tickets.
In the rest of the world, moving a major sports team from your city to another is akin to unilaterally renaming the town. Can you imagine if Real Madrid just picked up and left for Cordoba? Or if Bayern Munich decided to play in Frankfurt? What if Manchester United went to London looking for a bigger market (or perhaps be closer to their actual supporter base, says this Spurs fan, winkingly). And yet the mentality of North American owners is “my team, my rules.” Steal NHL teams from Winnipeg and Quebec. Betray Expos fans in Montreal. Rip the heart out of Oakland and put the Raiders in another city. Oh no, wait! Put them back again!
In North America, communities are “markets” and teams are “on-field product.” As a result, loyalty is toyed with. Owners want you to be ultra dedicated to your team, but if the bottom line looks tastier somewhere else, they are gone. This disequilibrium of commitment is what is at stake.
In the US and Canada, building and maintaining a world class football league has always been a dodgy enterprise. It requires local support to survive. Teams are more than willing to use images and the hard work of hard core supporters to build the case for the “best sporting atmosphere” in their cities. Supporters are not paid or offered anything by the teams to put on tifo, organize marches and contrive the images that you see when you think of “Whitecaps fans.” Quite the contrary. We do it out of friendship and love for our city or country, because it’s fun, and because we are loyal to the men and women who represent and play for us. We buy our tickets and wave flags and make tifo and sing and support because in an era that is increasingly mercantile and exploitative, celebrating community with art and fun and participatory culture is important. It is a response to a world where we are sold increasingly plastic products and experiences that continually cheapen what it means to be a part of something.
We engage in the ruse, suspending the rules for a while, because it is worth it to have this small pact with the devil in order to claim the bigger reward of belonging. It works, but you need to squint your eyes a bit and not lose too much of the shine once you know what’s underneath it all. However once in a while the curtain is lifted and the powers that be remind us that they still have the hammer. When that happens, the only thing to do in response is to stand together remind them that we still have the heart.