In recent weeks, Major League Soccer (MLS) revealed their new Code of Conduct to supporter groups throughout the league. This Code of Conduct, with included offenses and their consequences, is a policy that supporters have been long desiring and the Independent Supporters Council (ISC) applauds MLS for developing this league-wide policy. As an organization that advocates for the fair and equal treatment of ALL supporters, we would like to also acknowledge and thank MLS for officially taking a stand against racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and sexism in their Code of Conduct. ISC members, from MLS and other leagues, will commit to uphold these principles to make sure that stadiums in North America are places where all fans are welcome.
However, the Independent Supporters Council would like to open a dialogue with Major League Soccer to clarify some of the verbiage of the new Code of Conduct, including defining the term “political” and an official appeals process.
We stand with our member organization Timbers Army/107ist in finding question with and seeking clarity on the definition of “political” within the Code of Conduct. We, as an organization, feel strongly on ensuring that displays of human rights are not mistaken for political statements. Political engagement is sometimes necessary in securing human rights for all, but that does not make the message of human rights inherently political. In light of recent news of fans entering MLS stadiums with an overt message of hate and intolerance, we feel that it is necessary to differentiate what is and is not allowed inside MLS stadiums.
Major League Soccer aspires to become one of the top leagues in the world and has shown a admirable willingness to learn from the best practices of top leagues globally in pursuit of that goal. The Independent Supporters Council believes we can jointly turn to policies developed by UEFA and FIFA as an example of how to assess "political" speech. We have worked with our friends in FARE Network and while both FIFA and UEFA both prohibit political displays, these are mostly at the club level and do not pertain to fans’ ability to voice their opinions within the stadiums. In addition, the regulations and guidelines in Europe are mainly to not allow political party propaganda. FIFA states in its Human Rights Policy in Pillar 3 that it will help advocate for those who protect human rights and goes on to use the term “human rights defenders”. We believe that supporters in North America fall into this term with the work done in their local communities.
A decision by the UEFA disciplinary committee in 2016 sets a foundation on how Major League Soccer and the Independent Supporters Council can work together to guarantee expression for human rights defenders inside stadiums. In this decision, fans at a Barcelona game brought in Catalan flags which was seen as a political statement during the referendum in 2016. After the club rescinded an appeal to UEFA for the fines they received, UEFA made the following statement:
“While UEFA does not want football matches to be used for the purposes of political demonstrations, it also would have no wish to sanction any club or national association in situations where no reasonable person could object to, or be offended by, a particular message conveyed at a football match.”
We believe MLS must differentiate between statements of inclusion, tolerance, and mutual respect and statements that oppose these shared values. MLS’ own laudable Soccer For All initiative states, “that everyone is welcome to MLS, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.” Under the current Code of Conduct, messages and imagery that support MLS' own campaign could potentially be viewed as political, removed from stadiums, and the creators sanctioned. Messages of humanitarianism, equality, inclusive social causes, and anti-fascism are ones that ISC believe could be unfairly removed under the current Code of Conduct. We recommend MLS further defines “political” using verbiage from the UEFA decision from 2016, thereby protecting these aforementioned messages. The ISC would like to help identify and educate the league on imagery that could be misconstrued as inappropriate, when in reality they makes the statement that intolerance and exclusion is not welcome in Major League Soccer stadiums.
In line with our concerns over the defining of particular verbiage we would like to see an outlined appeals process for supporters in the event of any levied sanctions. We believe that supporters should have the ability to appeal their sanction. Supporters and the environment they bring to MLS games form a key aspect of MLS marketing and promotion, and unilateral stripping of supporter privileges and culture can only result in resentment between supporters groups and the clubs they support or the league to which those clubs belong. An appeals process that allows supporters to have the opportunity to explain any perceived infraction would go a long way toward mitigating potential resentment.
Don Garber stated in an interview on March 3, 2019 that, “We have strong relationships through our clubs with our supporters.” If this is truly believed, we look forward to the open dialogue to come where both parties can work together on making this Code of Conduct the best it can be for Major League Soccer and its’ supporters.