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When Soccer Meets Politics: How Portland Missed the Point

Updated: Jan 1, 2020

On Monday night, the Portland Timbers released a statement on their website and social media addressing the use of the “Iron Front” image on banners and flags in the stadium.

I think they managed to get just about everything wrong. 

What did Portland ban? What is the Iron Front and who are Antifa?

In order to explain just how badly they dealt with this, we should first define a few of the terms.

For those who do not know, the “Iron Front” is an anti-fascist symbol dating back to World War II. With fascist language and actions increasing in the United States and around the world, MLS supporters in Portland across the league have used the Iron Front symbol to express their opposition to an ideology that is fundamentally racist, bigoted, and undemocratic. Those seem like good things to be against, and the Portland Timbers claim to think so as well. But it’s hard to tell that from reading their statement.

This season, MLS introduced a ban on political displays around the league. The policy allows for some flexibility to decide what counts as “political” and what doesn’t, but as you can imagine, opinions vary widely. In this case, the Timbers claim “We didn’t make the rule banning the Iron Front on signs but we understand it and support it.” But shouldn’t a club that claims to be firmly anti-fascist support the right of supporters to display an anti-fascist symbol? 

The controversy traces back to the use of the Iron Front symbol by “antifa,” a loosely-defined anti-fascist movement in the United States. The problem, according to Portland and MLS, is that some people flying the Iron Front symbol have committed acts of violence. In their eyes, this association with violent antifa activists makes the image too political to appear on flags and banners at their games. 

But Portland doesn’t seem to understand what antifa actually is, and how it works. Antifa is not an organization, but a loose affiliation shared by many different groups. The entirety of antifa can’t be reduced to the violence of some specific protestors any more than the entirety of Timbers fandom could be reduced to the actions of a few specific individuals. 

Portland want to treat ‘human rights’ and ‘politics’ as opposites. But there is nothing more political than human rights.

While I think Portland get things terribly wrong in this case, I want to start by noting their legitimate bona fides on this subject. Part of the reason why this whole adventure is so disheartening is because I truly do believe that Portland has been an example to the world when it comes to embracing their role as human rights defenders. I have admired them for this for a long time and hope to continue doing so. But I think they got it wrong here. 

Human rights is a broad term that can encompass a lot of different things. People have been arguing about what, if anything, should count as an inherent human right for pretty much all of recorded history, and rarely have found much agreement. But in the modern era, we’ve generally narrowed the scope a bit and agreed to treat human rights primarily as the guarantees laid out in a series of international treaties and agreements. These still leave some room for disagreement, but the general outline is pretty clear. 

So, when Portland talked about MLS allowing “discretion locally over what is deemed broader human rights in their respective markets,” I had some questions. Maybe this is all just a misunderstanding caused by poor writing, but it seems like Portland is suggesting that people in different MLS markets have different inherent rights. And I’d like to know which specific rights are up for local interpretation. Admittedly there is some debate within the human rights world about whether rights are relative to individual cultures or are universal, so maybe Portland takes a relativist approach to the argument.

But more realistically, they were probably trying to make a simpler (and much worse) argument. Basically, I think they’re just trying to say that what is deemed “political” in one market might not be “political” in another market. But they’re co-opting the language of human rights to make this argument. And that’s the heart of the problem.

Which brings me to my least favorite line in this entire poorly written statement: “What comes into question is what is considered political and what is more broadly a human rights issue?” Aside from the fact that the language makes this sound like the musings of a philosophy undergrad, it also completely misses the point: that human rights and the people who defend them have always been and will always be political. It is impossible to separate the rights people are afforded from the day-to-day politics that surrounds them. Just look at the masses of people having their human rights violated under the Trump administration. Or frankly, any society in the world. Human rights are always reliant on who has power and who doesn’t, which always comes down to politics. 

To say that someone has a human right, but isn’t allowed to speak about the right because it would be ‘political’ is really just to say that the right doesn’t actually exist.

Why do fans insist on using the Iron Front? Because it communicates that they are not okay with what is happening in the country and the world. Because even in the luxury of a professional sporting event, they think it’s important to make it clear where they stand.

People cannot have human rights without fighting for them. If Portland and MLS are going to claim that they are “a stage for support of human rights causes,” then they need to protect their supporters’ ability to use that stage regardless of the political climate of the day.

These are not normal times, and we need to stop pretending that they are.

In all the debate about politics in sports, people seem to forget that these are not “normal” political times. Human beings are in cages, being denied basic human dignity because they are fleeing terror in their own countries. Families are being torn apart and white supremacists are marching down our streets. And by the way, the white supremacists are at our football clubs too, but I haven’t seen too many club statements about that.

Would you have gone to the Olympics in Berlin in 1934 because “sports should stay out of politics?” Would you feel good about that decision? Every day in this country and in the world sports organizations turn their backs on the issues that matter in the name of staying apolitical, something that can never be achieved. And to see it come from Portland, a place that has always dared to make that connection and have that conversation, is not only shameful: it’s dangerous. 

We are in the middle of something really scary right now. If we plan on stopping atrocities, all our institutions need to be standing against fascism. That includes soccer clubs, especially the most progressive soccer club in the country.

Portland, you claim to stand against fascism. Show it with your actions. I understand that much of this came from the league. But push back. Now is the time to push back. 

A couple of weeks ago, a video emerged on Twitter of a group of Atlanta United fans singing. Their words carry a simple message that should be the message of the entire league.

“If you’re a Nazi, get up and f*cking go.” 



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