MLS meets with supporters groups over political displays

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Major League Soccer officials met Thursday with supporters’ groups from the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and the Independent Supporters Council to discuss a new league policy that bans fan displays deemed as political.

At the heart of the issue is display of the Iron Front symbol, first used by an anti-Nazi paramilitary group in the 1930s, of three arrows pointed down to the left.

MLS maintains that the symbol is political because it has been appropriated by antifa, loosely organized groups of antifascists that sometimes engage in violence. Supporters’ groups maintain the symbol represents opposition to fascism and persecution – a human rights issue, not a political stance.

The new league policy was adopted this season. But supporters’ groups have challenged it by continuing to display the Iron Front symbol on flags and banners.

There have also been protests, with fans remaining silent for the first 33 minutes of a match between the Sounders and the Timbers. A number of supporters from both clubs have been issued warnings and a handful of Portland fans were banned for three games.

The meeting between the two sides on Thursday in Las Vegas did not produce a resolution, but a conference call was scheduled for Tuesday.

MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott issued a statement that reaffirmed the league’s “commitment to the values of inclusion and diversity, including opposition to racism, fascism and homophobia and to ensuring that there is no place for repugnant hate speech in MLS stadiums.”

“During today’s meeting, the league proposed a collaborative process for reviewing its Fan Code of Conduct in a way that is inclusive of a cross-section of industry experts and national advocacy groups along with the leaders of its supporter groups,” Abbott said. “The goal is to have that process completed prior to the start of the 2020 season.”

He also said the league would evaluate its treatment of the Iron Front flag for the remainder of the 2019 season.

The supporters’ groups and the ISC released statements saying they looked forward to “continuing the conversation” on Tuesday.

Timbers owner Merritt Paulson praised the efforts of the two sides to come together.

“We have always been advocates for soccer supporters uniquely having a right to exercise their voice on matters of human rights at games,” he said.

The league’s new fan code of conduct, implemented this season, prohibits “using (including on any sign or other visible representation) political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior.”

Earlier this season, a fan waving a Trump 2020 flag was removed from Providence Park.