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Alejandro Bedoya showed why MLS can never be a nonpolitical space

MLS wants to protect our enjoyment of its sport by remaining “nonpolitical.” That goal is naïve.

Last weekend, Philadelphia Union captain Alejandro Bedoya scored the first goal against D.C. United in a 5-1 victory, then celebrated by grabbing a field level microphone and demanding that Congress do something about gun violence.

Later, Bedoya explained why he felt compelled to make such a public demand: “I’m not going to sit idly and watch this stuff and not say something. Before I’m an athlete, before I’m a soccer player, I’m a human being first.”

On who inspired him to make the statement: His friends had come to a bipartisan conclusion that gun violence needed to be dealt with, and one of them asked Bedoya to use his platform to get people’s attention on the issue — “You can maybe do something and have more strength than some of us have.”

Bedoya’s request to Congress is understandable in the context of the tragedies that took place, and if not for the surprising way he did it, wouldn’t be seen as radical. But Bedoya made that request during an MLS game, a league that would like its stadiums to be nonpolitical spaces. By making his statement during a game, Bedoya dragged MLS into the uncomfortable place of sports and politics that it’s been trying to avoid.

At the end of his postgame interview, Bedoya was asked if he would be OK with league sanctions for his political action.

“Fine me if they want,” Bedoya said. “You know what? I’ve got to make a stand. Like I said, I’m a human being before I’m an athlete.”

A few days before the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton — which killed 31 people and injured many more, and are among the more than 250 American mass shootings in 2019 so far — MLS commissioner Don Garber gave an interview with ESPN in which he explained the league’s nonpolitical stance. MLS had formally warned Seattle Sounders supporters about flying an anti-Nazi flag, and Garber reasoned that if the league were to allow any political signage or statements, then it would also have to allow opposing viewpoints to have their say. And that could hurt the atmosphere that MLS would like to cultivate:

“We just saw some research that was done where the vast majority of fans do not see sports events as environments that should be driven by politics,” Garber said. “They want to go to a game and experience it and participate in a game without having to be confronted by issues that might make them uncomfortable.”

The interviewer tried to get Garber to give the league’s exact definition of “political.” Though the anti-Nazi flag is banned, MLS allows fans to fly the rainbow flag of the LGBTQ community. Garber defended that exception:

“A rainbow flag is not a political statement. In this case the Iron Front is a political organization.”

When the interviewer pushed harder on the difficulty of defining what constitutes the political, Garber got frustrated:

“It’s hard for me to respond to those kinds of things. I don’t want to get engaged with that. It’s very simple: We do not allow for political signage in our stadiums.”

Surprisingly, MLS didn’t fine Bedoya for his gesture, but the explanation for their inaction was so jargon-filled and empty that it perfectly represented the awkward nonpolitical space in which the league wants to exist:

About the same time that Garber gave his interview with ESPN, I was thinking of the importance of finding and protecting sources of joy in an increasingly absurd world. When things are so bad and overwhelming, when so many people in the world are suffering, happiness can seem like an unearned privilege.

But I think there’s a human obligation to find those things that make us happy and to protect them, because without them, the sorrows of the world can easily consume and overwhelm us to the point that we become no good use to anyone. There’s no point in a permanent state of emotional agitation and despair.

And in that sense, I sympathize with Garber and the league’s attempt to create a space where people don’t have to deal with the problems of the outside world. Soccer is a source of joy for me, as it is for billions of others, and it should be a space where we can unburden ourselves of everyday problems and enjoy the anguish of our team failing spectacularly.

But turning soccer into a utopia is impossible, and MLS’ position is ridiculous at its face. Garber couldn’t define what, exactly, is political because “politics” is subjective. What is seen as not political are the politics that someone, whatever their identity, can overlook.

Garber may not see the rainbow flag as a part of politics, but members of the LGBTQ community, and the bigots who are still trying to minimize their existence, know damn well that the flag is a statement of life, both socially and under the law. Queer and trans people can’t help that their lives are political, and stripping the flag of that context is silly.

The anti-Nazi flag may be making a political statement, but so is having a military appreciation night. And as long as the sport and leagues exist within a political world, Garber and MLS will find that attempt to insulate themselves to be a losing battle.

MLS can pretend that what is happening in the world doesn’t pertain to it, but Bedoya pointed out the problem with silencing fans and players from within: He’s a human being foremost. The human being in him was compelled to act, and that drive superseded the code of conduct imposed by the league.

MLS’ idea of a soccer utopia is a place where identity in relation to the sport is the only thing that matters, where being a player for the Union could eclipse Bedoya’s closeness to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and his awareness of the violence of the world. Or where queer, trans, black, anti-fascists, and even bigots will forget who they are when they cheer for their team.

But the problems and conflicts of the world won’t ever respect MLS’ idealism. Worse, that nonpolitical stance can be dangerous.

By reasoning that allowing one political stance means having to allow the opposite, MLS inadvertently lets bigots feel comfortable. The league might want to be nonpolitical, but that indifference sets the stage for white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys to infiltrate stadiums and intimidate other fans. These people don’t have to fly flags or make overtly political statements; their intentions and violent ideologies are clear to everyone around them.

Protecting joy does not mean looking away from the world. Fighting for the things that make one happy means creating the conditions necessary for those things to exist. MLS cannot send out a message of diversity and inclusivity, and then stand motionless as white nationalists flourish in their fans sections and attack fans on their way to games.

If MLS wants to be a space where fans can get away from the troubles of everyday life, it has to take an active role in creating the conditions that makes people feel safe and welcome. That means the league has to decide what politics it supports, and what it doesn’t.

By not punishing Bedoya, MLS, even with their toothless statement, showed that it’s comfortable with his politics. It took a political stance. And all Bedoya did was follow the insistence of his humanity and ask for a better world. He chose to do it during an MLS game because what he cared about as a person was bigger than the sport.

As MLS grows, it will find itself at the center of more situations like this. The league’s goal may have been to make a headache disappear, but in the process they showed why trying to stay apolitical is futile.