The debate surrounding political signage at sports events was thrust into the public eye at the end of last month after Major League Soccer decided to include the Iron Front in a list of banners prohibited on the grounds of representing a political third party. Banners, here, is the important word. MLS has said that political insignia in general is usually accepted on items of personal clothing, but not on banners or flags.
The sports institution has similarly justified the displaying of pride flags, as well as the stars and stripes, because they do not represent a specific political movement. For those who are unaware, the Iron Front is a symbol which was originally used by anti-fascist protest groups in Nazi Germany, and was banned in 1933.
These days, it has become almost synonymous with the group Antifa, which is often linked to outbreaks of violence at protests and counter-protests with an anti-fascist objective. The decision was originally made after the flag was flown at a Portland Timbers game, resulting in the club telling fans the decision to display the flag would no longer be allowed. This has since sparked outrage from some fans, as well as launching the social media movement #AUnitedFront.
Even though we watch these events unfolding on the other side of the pond, as it were, it raises the question of whether sports events are an appropriate place of political campaigning, which is a debate that can be applied right down to university level.
My gut reaction tells me that if you are going to a sporting event in order to conduct a political campaign, you might be wasting your time. The majority of people at the game are there to watch the match and support their team; it is an opportunity to switch off from external issues, including politics.
I can also see a practical application of a ban on political messages. If certain rival groups both attend matches flying their own flags, the likelihood of hostilities, and possible physical escalation, is increased. At the same time, the argument still stands that it counts as censorship. My personal verdict on the Iron Front is that it was an appropriate decision for MLS to ban that particular sign.
In early August, the management team for the Seattle Sounders listed Antifa alongside American far-right groups, Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, and the Timbers released an official statement explaining that the insignia is often connected with “violence at protests or counter protests.”
If a particular group associates itself with frequent scuffles and trouble-making, then I think it is only fair that flags or insignia associated with that movement should be banned. It’s known as consequences. But to address the broader question of whether politics in general has a place at sporting events, I feel that in a free democracy, people should have the right to express their opinions anywhere, including in the context of sports matches. I personally don’t see the need for it, but obviously some people do.
I understand the position of MLS, and I don’t think their decision was motivated by any agenda beyond trying to reduce hostility at soccer matches, which are already a place where tempers can easily get out of hand.The compromise they found, by admitting political insignia on items of clothing, just not on flags or banners, is also reasonably moderate, in my opinion.
Even so, I do believe that politics, even though it doesn’t really have a place in sport, should not be excluded from sporting events, so even though I think the Iron Front is probably not appropriate at a soccer match, I would have argued it should be banned for different reasons than those given by MLS.
But I do believe that if you can only enjoy a game of sports whilst flashing your political affiliations for everyone to see, then you need to take some time to chill out and learn to just enjoy the game.