Free Speech and the MLS Fan: The Revolution’s Situation

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Photo by Lorianne DiSabato

As MLS fans, we often fail to realize how lucky we are that our clubs offer us a wide variety of fan experiences.  If we are attending a game with a soccer newcomer or our kids, we can sit in the more traditional American sports seating sections and watch the action from our seats.  If we yearn for a more European hooligan atmosphere, then MLS can provide a passionate, inspired fan section where even the most mild-mannered professional can show their undying support for their club.  The beauty of the fans section is that every team has them: original clubs like DC United provided the roadmap for MLS fandom to the new high-profile groups like the Philadelphia Union.

At times, however, the passion of the fans and club management will clash and the idea of appropriate devotion become murky.  We saw an example this offseason when Toronto FC supporters led a revolt against the team’s (mis)management to encourage them to stop raising prices while failing to put a quality club on the field.  Who owes what to who is an interesting debate.

This weekend, the relationship between New England Revolution management and supporters reached a boiling point.  For a full (but biased) account I recommend the profile on the fan site The Bent Musket as well as accounts on these other sites, but in essence The Fort was told to tone down their swearing during the match.  In particular, management wanted one phrase stopped that the fans chanted at opposing keepers.  As the post recounts, The Fort was slowly cleared out during the match to the point where by the end of the game it was pretty much empty.  Of course any time there are narratives like this, the accounts have to be taken with a grain of salt but it looks like the relationship between the team’s most hardcore fans and the ownership is reaching a straining point supposedly over conduct.  I would also stress details are still emerging, and we will update this account as they emerge.

But an essential question is illustrated by this incident: in the debate was over language and the club asking the supporters to tone it down, who is right? Should a club tell supporters what to chant?  In Europe, it is common for ownership to speak with fan groups and try to prevent offensive chants, but this is primarily in cases of blatantly racist chants.  Swearing is just part of the game; you can’t go to a Serie A match without a referee being called a cuckold or worse.  In England, some of the best chants rained down upon opposing players are much worse than what The Fort yelled at keepers.  Like most sports, soccer is all about passion and the desire to influence opponents by intimidating them, and preventing may be taking away an important part of the game.

Conversely, in a country where soccer is a niche sport, it is important that families and casual fans find a welcoming atmosphere.  So often, non-soccer fans imagine English hooligans as the average soccer fan and look down on attending professional games.  Additionally, practically every American child plays soccer at some point in his life and are perfect marketing targets for any MLS team.  Parents are not going to want to take a child to a game where they can learn new words, so management is conceivably justified in trying to maintain a clean language environment.

So what do you think: are the New England Revolution justified in trying to clean up The Fort’s language?  What obligation does ownership have to creating a “family friendly environment”?

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