The Commish’s Ill-Timed Comments on CussingDon Garber’s recent comments about cracking down on MLS fan profanity hit all the wrong notes
by Abram Chamberlain | Monday, July 23, 2012
The infamous “You suck asshole” chant. Everyone knows it as one of the worst chants in soccer. It’s not that it has a cuss in it, or even that it is homophobic in its origin. It’s not even that it’s uncreative. It’s just not a good taunt. It is, however, one that groups of supporters can chant in unison. It is also a thorn in the side of Don Garber.
It was over a year ago, that the supporters section in New England was raided with the “YSA” chant being the alleged impetus for such actions. It was swift, it was cold and it was heartless. People throughout the league were appalled by it. Supporter’s groups in Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle and quite frankly most of the league got behind New England’s Midnight Riders, Rebellion and Rev Army in shows of solidarity. But MLS, for the most part, remained silent on the crackdown in Foxboro. Fortgate, as it was called by several bloggers, was looked at as a sole action brought down by the New England front office on its most ardent supporters during their worst season ever. And it was all blamed on “YSA”. But since Fortgate, other events have popped up around MLS showing an interesting, if not alarming, change in how the league supports and treats its team’s supporters.
Outside of New England, despite a few articles here or there, the actual league never really went too deeply into the event. There was nothing on their website, on the MLS sponsored podcast or even covered by some of the more notable American soccer journalists; however, at the end of a recent interview with Brian Straus of The Sporting News, Don Garber finally gave us some insight into his impression of the story and a harsher tone towards supporter culture than most have heard directly from the league.
Garber noted that, “When vulgarity is going over the air, it’s an issue with the FCC and we’ve got to stop it. [New England Revolution president] Brian Bilello stopped it in New England, and I really appreciated what the Midnight Riders did.”
It makes sense that this event has to do with the driving motivation to most businesses: their bottom line. Obviously, the vast majority of MLS’s money, outside of tickets, is from television rights. Garber wants us to believe that a league without a good television deal cannot grow. This is true, but neither can a league without fans.
Garber continued by noting that “[The Midnight Riders] weren’t happy about [the actions taken]… [Sunil Gulati] said, ‘We sat down with [the New England supporters’ groups] and said, ‘You’ve just got to stop.’ ”
Though varying in degrees of severity, there have been dozens if not hundreds of reports on what happened during Fortgate. And while there are reports that prior to the actual event the Midnight Riders and Rebellion did agree to codes of conduct in the Fort, the actual event of Robert Kraft’s TeamOPs – the group who runs security detail for Patriot and Revolution games, as well as other events in Gillette Stadium – coming into the Fort and allegedly removing, and arresting, people did not involve anyone sitting down with any persons with warnings of said actions.
It would appear that, Garber is not retelling but rather rewriting the story. In Garber’s world, it was a swift action. In reality however, it was a peaceful negotiation and brokerage of a deal. And thanks to the deal there is no more profanity coming from the New England supporters section.
But reality says differently.
As far as Brian Bilello stopping the profanity in the Fort, that did not happen. Over the past six weeks, I have been in New England, I have sat in the Fort and I have participated in chants filled with profanity. I have screamed out the “Sparrow” chant, I have sang out chants filled with f-bombs – no different than what I would have done at a Boston Red Sox or Celtics game and much more tame than I have done at Auburn University gridiron game. I have taken part in the infamous “YSA” despite my aversion to it – peer pressure is a powerful thing.
With this poorly timed comment, Garber seems woefully lost. Were the Midnight Riders happy with Fortgate? Of course not. No one is happy being told they are too loud or too profane for a sporting event. But Garber’s words make it appear that everything is fine and dandy in Foxboro.
It is not.
Fortgate is looked back upon in anger. The better part of the past two months I have attended the US Guatemala viewing party, tailgated outside of Gillette with both the Riders and Rebellion and I have also sat in the Fort for several games with those groups and the Rev Army – an unofficial Revs’ supporter’s group who has refused to curtail to giving the Revolution a “roster of active member” – and one thing seems true about all of them. They are still mystified about how and why the whole incident happened in the first place. There has been very little post op for the incident.
During my time in New England, I’ve informally met and interacted with members of TeamOps. Some of the people have seemed good natured, chuckling away at some of the more profane chants in the Fort. In my recent conversations with TeamOPs members who patrol the pitch in front of the Fort, they were jovial and genuinely enjoyed what the Fort brought to a sport that they didn’t truly understand. Nevertheless, I have also been bothered by a few members of TeamOps whilst trying to get to my seat. I have been carded by TeamOps while carrying beer in the stadium (I do have a baby face despite my age, but I had already been carded by a stadium vendor). I can see firsthand that the Team Ops and supporters group’s relationship – if there ever was one – has not yet been mended. But to Garber, it almost appears as if the whole Fortgate incident never happened.
Except that it did. There is always talk of it. The supporters have not forgotten it. So why would Garber pick now to address it? And why would he address it in the manner in which he did?
As we prepare for the MLS All-Star Game, which regardless of your feelings on it is one of the biggest soccer games with MLS clubs in America annually, there are probably better things to focus on. But instead we are picking at scabs that have still not healed.
In fact, there has been very little healing in New England. The whole occurrence sent waves around the league as a sign that things needed changing in New England. Yet New England was not alone, it was just the most egregious of the situations. However, it was later seen that in Houston the supporters groups were reprimanded and punished as well for their behavior at the MLS Cup Final. But this time it was not done by AEG, the team’s majority owner, it was instead done by MLS. In Colorado, just a few weeks back, a fan was banned from Dick’s Sporting Goods Park for life due to profanity. It was also mentioned that he had a “file” on his previous history, leading to a “Free Teddy” campaign started locally and expanding nationally via MLS supporter groups.
It seems to come across as a league-wide crackdown on language. Garber seemed to allude to it with Straus by saying ”They need to stop [the profanity] in New York, and they need to stop it in a handful of other markets. And if they don’t stop it, we’re going to have to find a way to eradicate it from our game. We can’t have young kids in stadiums listening to vulgarity. No other league would tolerate it. No other public event would have it and we can’t tolerate it in Major League Soccer.”
Major League Soccer has done all it can to grow. It has done all it can to enter the sporting lexicon of America. It is advertising its fans and the fan experience as much if not more than it does the game and the players. Yet now the man in charge is issuing a gag order and is signing off on some poorly executed moves around the league.
It is within MLS’s rights to ask its fans to mind their manners and their mouths, and as a father, I understand not wanting my children exposed to that language. But it happens, especially in public. And for Garber to say that “No other league would tolerate it” just comes across as condescending and untruthful. Other leagues do tolerate it. And those who don’t tolerate it certainly aren’t advertising it.
MLS is riding a line between trying to get everyone to come on-board by selling the atmosphere and still trying to appeal to a very fickle family base. The other big sports leagues in America have mastered both. You can be a drunk shouting at NFL games and still have families there. You can cuss out players during a MLB game and share a father-son-moment. The radio at an NBA game can play the latest Justin Bieber tune while the crowd hurls insults about the sexual escapades of a player while he shoots free throws.
MLS is learning on the fly and, based on the curve, they are failing. It is far too soon to try to rewrite the tale of Fortgate. We still have yet to see what the full impact will be – though New England averaging approximately 3,000 less fans per game this year than last is partially telling.
We should be focused on other things. I, for one, wanted to spend my Monday column talking about the moronic nature of All-Star games, but the story changed with these comments. And for all I know that is what Garber wanted to do. Perhaps he wanted to show supporters that MLS is firmly in control of its own business, not its clients, even the most ardent. Or maybe he just wanted to change the storyline. After all, Commissioner Garber is a master of spin and he mentioned in this same interview that amongst other tasks he has to be a salesman and spokesman for the league.
But until his plan is fully played out, Don Garber’s comments seem ill-timed, ill-conceived and unnecessary. By letting fans and media think that he believes a delusional outcome of a poorly performed plan, he is ignoring the truth of what truly happened in New England, Houston and Colorado. A betrayal of fans for what he believes is the betterment of the league.