A flag with the Iron Front symbol. A Betsy Ross flag. Major League Soccer’s updated fan code of conduct.
Those three items together point to a new trend that has emerged in MLS stadiums across the country this season: politics have made their way into American soccer, and fans are making their voices heard — one way or the other. Whether it be rebelling against what are seen as constraints on free expression or driving out a problematic symbol from the stands, fan behavior at MLS matches has gotten the attention of the league, and it has responded.
At Rio Tinto Stadium stadium last month, a Real Salt Lake fan brought an American flag from the colonial era commonly known as the Betsy Ross flag to an Aug. 17 game against Los Angeles FC. The flag — which features a circle of 13 white stars representing the original 13 colonies — has become a troubling symbol in recent years due to its connection with the era of slavery in the United States and its use as a symbol among some white supremacist groups.
It’s that symbolism that caused some RSL fans to complain about the flag and its owner, Randolf Scott, to the organization. RSL’s chief business officer, Andy Carroll, told The Salt Lake Tribune that Scott was informed that the flag was a divisive symbol and was asked not to bring it to games anymore.
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Scott, a season ticket holder, brought the flag to two home games: Aug. 17 against LAFC and Aug. 14 against the Seattle Sounders. Carroll said Scott brought the flag into both games with no incidents, initially. It was only after the LAFC game that other fans complained about the flag’s connections to white supremacy.
“It wasn’t an issue that we had,” Carroll said. “And then it became an issue. And then, again, we have to default to our mission of unification and not having things that are divisive.”
Carroll emphasized that RSL’s responsibility as a club is to promote an inclusive, unifying and safe environment for fans. When the flag threatened that mission, the club acted.
“If those things are going to be divisive,” Carroll said, “then we really don’t want to have it in our stadiums.”
Carroll said the organization was surprised at the fans’ response to the flag, adding that it was unaware of the symbolism and controversy surrounding it.
“I’m not sure where this came from,” Carroll said. “We really don’t know the origin of this.”
At RSL’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes, Scott brought with him a flag similar to the Betsy Ross version. Except this one had 12 stars in a circle and one in the center of that circle. It’s called a Cowpens flag, named after a battle location during the Revolutionary War. It does not appear that particular flag is tied to white supremacy and the like.
The impetus of the Betsy Ross flag being associated with the slavery era is unclear. But in September 2016, students at a Michigan high school brought a banner promoting Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and a colonial American flag to a high school football game.
The president of the Greater Grand Rapids Branch of the NAACP said the students were involved in “intentional actions of intimidation and rooted in no agenda other than to insult, to injure, and to incite.”
About three years later, former NFL player Colin Kaepernick lodged a complaint to Nike in July 2019 for planning to sell a pair of shoes depicting the flag. After much backlash, the shoe company canceled the distribution of the shoe. A Utah flag manufacturer quickly began selling the Betsy Ross design in response to the Nike incident.
In Portland, the issue has been fans displaying the Iron Front logo at Timbers games, a symbol associated with Antifa, an occasionally violent anti-fascist militant group in the U.S. The logo, which displays three arrows pointing down and to the left, is an anti-facist and anti-Nazi symbol that dates back to the 1930s.
The league’s code of conduct, which was updated before the 2019 season, states “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” are behaviors that “represent a threat to the safety of the event.”
MLS has specifically banned the Iron Front symbol in its policy.
Members of the Timbers Army, the main support group of the Portland Timbers, recently took issue with the “political” portion of the policy. Fans at Timbers games have recently protested the league’s decision by staying silent for 30 minutes during the match. Representatives from Timbers Army scheduled a meeting with MLS officials in Las Vegas on Thursday.
In March, the Timbers Army released a rebuke of the new MLS policy. And late last month, ESPN reported that MLS banned some Timbers fans for three games because they ignored the league’s ban on the Iron Front symbol and displayed it on flags during an Aug. 31 game.
And it’s not just Portland. Allianz Field, home of Minnesota United, also banned the Iron Front symbol at its stadium. While the MLS ban is limited to only large displays of the symbol, Wonderwall, the parent organization of MNUFC’s supporters groups, said in a statement that the ban also extended to clothing and patches.
“Wonderwall strongly believes in the rights of our individual members to express themselves and their beliefs,” the statement read in part. “It is the passion of the individuals that collectively creates the passion for the team, which the team is more than happy to market and monetize.”
Some Minnesota fans were ejected from Sunday’s win over RSL for displaying the Iron Front symbol on flags and banners, per one of the supporters groups in attendance.
Most recently, the leader of the Emerald City Supporters, the largest supporters group of the Seattle Sounders, was ejected from a game for waving an Iron Front flag. In response, most of the fans in the supporters section of the Seattle area walked out in protest.
The ECS met with the organization after the incident in order to resolve the conflict.