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How NYCFC is dealing with reports of hate in the bleachers

New York City FC faces the New England

New York City FC faces the New England Revolution during their inaugural game at Yankee Stadium on March 15, 2015. Credit: Getty Images/Elsa

New York City FC chief executive Brad Sims said the club banned numerous fans in 2019 as part of an ongoing effort to combat violence and hate during matches.

In an interview Tuesday with Newsday, Sims said the club takes seriously reports of trouble in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium, and the organization will continue to issue bans as necessary moving forward.

“It’s upsetting,” Sims said. “Whenever we've had situations that have been brought to our attention, or fans that have gone outside of or violated our fan code of conduct, we've taken action.”

Reports of  violence and racist chants within NYCFC supporters’ groups have plagued the club since its inaugural season. Last year, HuffPost detailed the connections that specific NYCFC fans and supporters’ groups share with various extremist organizations, as did The Athletic in a 2018 story.

HuffPost's story detailed reports of a brawl before the first NYCFC match against the rival Red Bulls in 2015, as well as racist chanting heard at matches that season. It also detailed more recent attempts by some fans to intimidate others in the supporters' sections without making direct threats. In October 2018, several NYCFC fans were photographed with a number of people associated with violent groups who then participated in an assault of anti-fascist demonstrators, according to the HuffPost report.

"This is something I honestly wasn't aware of when I took the job, I kind of got up to speed on it,” said Sims, now in his second season as club CEO. “It's been something that is disturbing to me. I will say that I don't feel like it's been kind of accurately reported how seriously we've taken the subject and how important it is to us to ensure that all of our fans feel safe and welcome in our stadium environment.”

The primary action taken, Sims said, is to banish fans involved from future matches.

“We've banned numerous [people] in the last year that I've been here from our games,” Sims said. “We banned numerous people for these reasons, had them ejected from games and then subsequently banned from our games in the future. And then when that happens, MLS gets involved and then they get handed their ban from all MLS games. So that happened, like I said, numerous times last year. If we see any of that kind of activity going forward, it will be dealt with very seriously. We need to be able to make it very clear to people that that's something that we take very, very seriously.”

Ultimately, Sims said the values of those fringe supporters don’t match those of the club.

“We are a club that's all about inclusion and celebrating the diversity of our fan base and diversity of the New York City marketplace. We definitely have a zero-tolerance policy for anything hate-related and hate speech. We feel like one of the things that we're about is using the power of soccer to bring people together, so that that's what we're all about.”

Last year, NYCFC made a push to eliminate the use of a derogatory Spanish slang term for a gay man used as a chant in some soccer circles, producing videos denouncing its use with fans and players shown before matches. The club on Thursday stripped the official supporter group status of New York City Supporters Club, previously one of two groups recognized by NYCFC, following the use of the term in a tweet from an account representing the group last Saturday.

MLS ran into controversy last season in several markets after its new league-wide fan code of conduct barred political displays. The policy included a ban on the Iron Front, a symbol that was first used by an anti-Nazi paramilitary group in the 1930s and popular as an anti-racist and anti-fascist symbol among some MLS fan bases.

The league eventually lifted the ban on Iron Front imagery after protests from fans in Seattle, Portland and elsewhere led to negotiations with fan groups. 

NYCFC also bans in-venue political displays under its own fan code of conduct policy.

"I think it's a complicated question. I think that we've seen that throughout the league with Seattle and Portland and others, and the league even kind of softened their stance a little bit on that,” Sims said. “Ultimately, that's not my call. I think most fans come to sporting events because they want to get away from the kind of stuff that's going on in the outside world and they want to have fun. They want to have fun with their friends and their family and they want to be in a place where they feel it is a great fan environment. But, there's also freedom of speech, one of the things our country is founded on, so that's a difficult one, one we also work with our partners at our other clubs and MLS on to get to a fair policy on that."

Sims made sure, however, not to equate the controversy in other markets with the issues facing NYCFC.

“Regardless of that, the piece that can't be tolerated under any circumstances is hate-related political speech," Sims said. "That can't be tolerated, by us or by anyone in my opinion. Other stuff, I think it's still evolving and it's going to be something that we can continue to kind of keep a close eye on.”

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