Editorial: When the Black and Red Make Things Black and White

By Steven Clark

Bias is a tricky feeling to overcome. It sneaks in crevices of the subconscious wherever there may be one. Bias influences our decisions, and it determines the weight on which we place importance with what we like or dislike. Bias can develop preconceptions, can read between the lines, and can close healthy discussion. It never goes away, no matter how hard one attempts to suppress it.

When it comes to sports media, bias is the enemy. A professional is able to store away lingering thoughts of rooting for one side or the other, and his or her work is expressive of the truth, flair and flavor aside. Chances are, however, he or she grew up as a fan of a particular team (I don’t think I have ever met someone who rooted for an entire league as a child), and that connection to the organization never completely faded if at all. Sports fulfill multiple layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; journalists are no exception to the theory.

So it comes to a surprise to me to hear that two individuals reporting D.C. United matches have had their media credentials revoked for essentially being a fan of the team. More specifically, one person stated in an online forum that his credentials and his spouse’s recently purchased season tickets created a conflict of interest in his work. Afterwards, another individual came forward after being dealt the same consequence two weeks earlier. In both cases, the sales team was made explicitly clear that the two were credentialed prior to the credit cards being charged.ha

This new development comes shortly after D.C. United - and MLS towards one fan in particular – issued punishment to fans for celebrating with smoke canisters in the parking lot. The reaction towards these fans runs inconsistent to their sanctions imposed – or lack thereof – on previous events across the league. In addition, organizations within MLS as early as two days after the punishment ran promotional content featuring use of smoke as a tool to attract casual fans towards an “authentic fan atmosphere.”

How does a spouse’s enjoyment of the team from the stands hinder the work of their other halves? Why are fans berated for creating the environments MLS relies on to promote ticket sales? To me, it seems that the conflict is with D.C. United (and MLS) creating a dichotomy between passion and professionalism, and that being a fan is somehow detrimental to the brand the organizations aim to promote. In Washington D.C., with a dwindling fan base and a suppression of fan displays seen all over the world, it seems counter-intuitive to alienate both the most ardent supporters creating the atmosphere and media personnel covering the team.

 DC United Supporters Group, District ultras, show off their tifo display.

DC United Supporters Group, District ultras, show off their tifo display.

Gone are the days of soccer moms and middle-class suburbia running the show. Today’s fans are a wide diversity of cultures, socioeconomic statuses, and lifestyles culminating in massive gatherings across the United States and Canada for two hours a week to share a common interest in which they all relate. Some of those fans take that passion a step further, creating supporters groups to coordinate and display their love of the game and the dozens of athletes on the field and bench. Other fans choose to vent their passion through media, sharing their love of the game to any person willing to ingest the information, even if they have to tone down their love for a specific team in their work.

I am both a supporter and an aspiring professional in the sports industry. I am also a fan of D.C. United.

It is clear to say that these two events, both happening within a week of each other, have created a rift between fans of the team and the office running it. Additionally, the media has found themselves in a position worth pondering. To me, personally, D.C. United and MLS have developed a small sense of doubt of whether or not I am making the right decision in going forward with my goals.

I was never raised on soccer. In fact, my first real experience with the sport was only six years ago, during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. That tournament was also the catalyst that fueled the fire in me to become a fan; Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria was the catching spark. I attended my first game in RFK Stadium, the season opener against Columbus Crew.  The match finished 3-1; but the real story was in the stands. I sat on the “quiet side,” and I very quickly learned I belonged on the “loud side,” the side of the field inundated by supporters groups. The fire continued to grow. I found and began participating in online forums, reached out to professionals linked to the sport either through media or on the operational side of the business, and learned everything I could. I even bought season tickets for the very first time for any sport, driving the near 100 miles one way to RFK stadium from Delaware week after week. I still do, even though I chose not to renew my season ticket package. The fans, the loud side, the rambunctious group of supporters doing what they do best, was what drew me in, game after game.

Soccer, in that short time span, changed my life. People always say “do what you love”, and it took me a long time to find out what that was. I’ve chosen to pursue a career writing about, analyzing, and sharing my love of this sport with anybody that will listen.  I’ve chosen my path, and it’s difficult for me to imagine finding this road if not for the atmosphere created by those “hooligans” at that very first match.

Now, here I am, faced with a tough decision about attending the match this weekend. I’m torn between the loyalty I feel towards the friends and community that embraced me, and my growing desire to share my thoughts of the sport through a more neutral perspective. My fellow supporters that are attached to the team, as well as my teammates (we are the 12th player, after all) are the people that brought me here, and if they’re being mistreated, I’d rather not contribute to an organization that chooses not to appreciate and celebrate the time and effort put into making the match an entertaining spectacle even when the product on the field is lacking.

A shadow of doubt regarding my aspiring career has also been cast. Am I not allowed to be a fan if I am to work in the industry? Are they conflicts of interest, and as such I should lose interest in the one thing I want to be paid to do? Is it worth not being a fan so I can become a professional, and should I throw away the passion that’s driving me to that end goal once I reach it? Do I turn my back on my community so I can serve them? I know these questions seem ridiculous, and they are. But D.C. United’s front office this week has brought to the surface situations in which no one would have stopped to give second thought. I can say that my bias towards D.C. United has altered, but I will do my best after this piece to remain fair both to this club and all others.

Bias affects everyone, from selling tickets to garnering media attention. The most passionate fans are the leaders in the stands, and they are most likely the consistent buyers of tickets. Losing them loses the atmosphere, which loses the casual observer from a unique sporting experience. Losing media attention loses an outlet for free advertising, which also loses fans. If D.C. United and MLS feel the need to separate the two and only allow one per person, they run the risk of losing both.


Editorial Posts reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of TotalMLS.net