Rantz: Sounders FC front office warns Antifa supporters to pack up flag or else

Jul 31, 2019, 5:56 AM | Updated: 10:15 am

Seattle Sounders...

The Sounders taking on the Portland Timbers. (Jason Rantz, KTTH)

(Jason Rantz, KTTH)

There’s controversy brewing between the Sounders FC front office and a group of their more vocal Progressive supporters over a political symbol they displayed in their fan section. It’s resulted in a formal warning to keep political symbolism out of the crowd and there are fears this could lead to a boycott.

At a recent home game between the Sounders and arch rivals Portland Timbers, Emerald City Supporters (ECS) flew an Iron Front flag, which they say is their way of fighting fascism. On their blog, ECS leaders Shawn Wheeler and Tom Biro wrote:

Starting in pre-World War 2 Germany, the three arrows have been a symbol of the fight against fascism, oppression and persecution and to this day continue to represent these important values around the world. Fascism is the exact opposite of these beliefs and therefore cannot be allowed to exist in the same space. If we, as a supporter group, as a soccer club, and as a community allow fascists to be comfortable, they will continue to stand in opposition to what we believe. We will not allow that. We will not stop fighting for what is right.

In a strongly worded letter, majority owner Adrian Hanauer and chief operating officer Bart Wiley officially warned the supporters that the flag display “is a clear violation of the MLS Fan Code of Conduct” and instructed them to not bring the flag again.

“Messages, banners, flags or any other symbols that represent an association to a political group will not be allowed in CenturyLink Field,” the letter stated. “This includes, but not limited to, Antifa, Iron Front, Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer. This new Fan Code of Conduct was clearly shared with all supporter groups prior to the start of the 2019 campaign.”

The letter warns that, if they continue, they face match suspensions.

ECS is not happy, arguing they’re fighting for human rights and their message isn’t political.

No one should be oppressed or persecuted because of who they are. As with all things in life no one should feel they can’t attend a soccer match and support the club they love. Just like the Iron Front symbol, the Emerald City Supporters stand for the oppressed and the persecuted.

While the Sounders FC did not want to officially comment beyond what’s already in the letter, inside sources tell me that the front office is in conversations with the disgruntled fans. (Note: I served on the radio broadcast team for three seasons when they were affiliated with our sister station, KIRO-FM.)

This isn’t about disagreeing with the politics for the club, per se; the Sounders pretty openly extol progressive values. They’ve even previously supported a flag bearing the message “Anti-fascist / Anti-racist / Always Seattle.” But the Iron Front flag was a step too far, especially given the MLS instituted a new policy specifically prohibiting its display.

Romanticizing violent thugs

ECS is wrong to suggest the symbol isn’t political; they just happen to agree with the politics it represents. And that’s the rub: It’s a symbol that has been co-opted by dangerous Antifa groups, which routinely use violence (and threats of violence) to achieve not just a political agenda, but to silence opposition.

They most recently earned condemnation for their attack on journalist Andy Ngo in Portland, severely beating him. In Tacoma, just a few weeks ago, the police shot and killed an Antifa member after police said he was throwing incendiary objects at the detention center. Members routinely antagonize and assault police, then, when arrested, claim they’re the actual victims of the “fascist pigs” they call police.

To brush aside criticism, Antifa activists justify their behavior as simply fighting fascism and racism — positioning themselves as heroes. Indeed, the ECS Twitter account retweeted a number of delusional, dramatic proclamations about how they’re the ones fighting for what’s right.

One user Tweeted: “The narrative that being anti-fascist is somehow radical or equivalent to REAL terrorism from white supremacists like KKK is utterly ridiculous and irresponsible. Hey @MLS the same president that 5hrs ago tweeted your same talking point refuses to put put [sic] the KKK on a terror list”

(Note: The KKK is considered a hate group by the US government since, as Newsweek notes, “the federal government does not make public an official list of active domestic terrorist groups.”)

Another Tweet: “I try not to be an alarmist about things. But at no point in my lifetime has anti-fascism ever been controversial, except now–in the moment when authoritarian government and right-wing political violence are ascendant.”

And one of the more dramatic Tweets: “We believed in you when no one else knew your name. We have had your back when no one else did. We stood for you in moments of complete darkness and we were there to celebrate your glory. Dont[sic] turn on us now @SoundersFC”

A problem with this romanticizing a hate group is that Antifa supporters generally view all conservatives as racist fascists. They’re not nuanced about their cult-like beliefs. Republican? Fascist! Must stamp out hate with violence against our political enemies!

ECS isn’t the only group pushing back. Independent supporters group Gorilla FC, which say they “choose to identify as antifa” has defended ECS, Tweeting: “Yes, we all knew political messaging wasn’t allowed prior to the season. Stop being purposefully obtuse. The iron front logo wasn’t considered political by MLS until well in to the season.”

But sources say ECS knew they couldn’t use the flag.

In fact, it may have been an attempt by ECS to needle Portland supporters since they found out they couldn’t use the flag either. Neither I or others I’ve spoken to remember seeing much of this flag in the past at the games, making this a relatively new controversy the club is dealing with.

This is not the first time the group has come under fire for their politicism. Several ECS members were kicked out of BC Place in Vancouver, during an away game, for bringing in an Antifa banner the MLS prohibited.

This has the potential to be a big problem for the Sounders. These supporters create a big part of the Sounders spectacle, marching to the match before every home game and are often the loudest fans in the stadium, waving Sounders supporter flags and unveiling the pre-game tifo.

There’s some fear of a potential boycott of this weekend’s game against Sporting KC. If a significant portion of the ECS or Gorilla FC supporters stayed home, it would be very noticeable, as sections 121, 122, and 123, where they sit, gets a lot of camera time on TV behind the goal.

On Twitter, Wheeler was pumping tickets for the upcoming game, so the fears may be misplaced.

Biro and Wheeler of ECS did not return requests for comment; members of their group have tried to get me fired from the Sounders broadcast because I’m a conservative. They were unsuccessful and it may be why they did not respond.

Business implications

This decision seems like a no-brainer for the Sounders.

While they undoubtedly want to maintain interest of their Progressive fan base, Antifa is hardly unifying. Their violence and cowardice (most refuse to show their faces) makes them far outside the mainstream, even in Seattle.

But beyond that, the Sounders need to expand; being known as a club supportive of a group of violent thugs thinking they’re fighting Nazis will alienate future supporters that want to escape politics for 90 minutes. This even risks hurting the team’s expansion outside of Seattle.

Ticket sales, while strong (certainly by MLS standards), have hit a relative ceiling in the last few years and the front office is not seeing the club bring in new fans at a fast enough rate. The team’s expansion into Tacoma with the Defiance, their USL club, shows the team is trying to bring more than just Seattleites into their universe.

The Sounders don’t want extremist views getting in the way of their expansion. How will this play out? We’ll get a better sense on Sunday.

Go Sounders.

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