A couple of weeks back we talked about ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, and co-host Mike Wilbon's assertion that the streamer tossing common at Toronto FC games is "bush league."
In that post I argued that while TFC fans' streamers are annoying and maybe a little played out, they're an ultimately harmless expression of the fans' enthusiasm, and not among the top factors damaging soccer's credibility among mainstream sports fans stateside.
Nineteen days after I wrote that true hooliganism would drag MLS into "Bush League" territory faster than streamers alone ever could, the fans at Crew Stadium in Columbus illustrated exactly what I meant.
If you haven't already read the stories or seen the clips, understand that throughout last Saturday's home game against New England, Columbus fans showered the field not just with streamers, but with sausages (apparently it was $1 Bratwurst night), lit flares and, after Kheli Dube's game winner in the 89th minute, racial slurs.
Listen closely to that youtube clip and a little past 22 seconds in you'll hear some Columbus heckler drop an N-bomb.
Who knew Michael Richards was a Crew fan?
Anyway, the league has already responded to the incident ... sort of.
Here's all of what commissioner Don Garber had to say about it:
"We are investigating reports of incidents from the May 24 match between the Columbus Crew and New England Revolution and will take appropriate action based on our findings."
I'm not kidding when I say that's the entire statement. Enlightening, I know. They're not even investigating the incidents -- just the "reports" of them.
Way to take a stand, guys.
I put in a call to the league (waiting for a return) to find out if MLS has guidelines regarding fan behaviour or if they leave it to teams to set the rules in each stadium. When I find out I'll fill you guys in, but after Saturday it wouldn't surprise me to see the league try to legislate fan behaviour in the future. This is a very image-conscious league, one still trying to gain traction with the elusive "family" demographic in several U.S. markets. They can't risk turning off the "family" crowd with boorish fan antics.
I'm not a gambling man -- if I were I'd cover a gambling sport, like horse racing, or the NBA -- but if I were I'd bet on MLS banning any and all projectiles at games.
Three weeks ago Garber defended streamers, calling them a "unique phenomenon that happens all over the soccer world." Instead of shunning streamers, he said we should all "embrace the passion and electricity that makes soccer the world's most popular sport."
But that was then.
After reading media reports about Saturday's match there's a pretty strong perception that streamer throwing leads to more serious misbehaviour. You don't have to believe that theory any more than you buy that marijuana is a one-way street to harder drugs. Plenty of streamer tossers would rather eat expensive stadium food than chuck it at somebody, and would never dream of levelling a personal, let alone racial, attack at an opposing player. But the perception exists that one form of heckling leads to the next, so expect the league to act on the perceptions.
Enforcing a ban on projectiles seems pretty simple. Search fans when they enter the stadium and confiscate what you find, then have security and police deal with anyone who still manages to throw something onto the field.
But what about the racial slurs. You can stop people from bringing streamers to the stadium, but how do you stop them from talking? Does a foul language ban at TFC games stop fans from swearing?
When it comes to racial slurs and other offensive language fans are on an honour system, but clearly folks like Mr. N-Bomb from Columbus don't care much for honour.
So with their image at stake, what's the league to do?
I'll find out as soon as they call me back.
-- Morgan Campbell