Thoughts on the Backline’s protest

Nashville SC started this season with a 1-0 victory against the Sounders on the road.  On Wednesday night, the Coyotes defeated Seattle 1-0 at home. That’s something to celebrate, something to talk about, something to relish.

And, yet, over the 24 hours before and after that game, we almost undoubtedly witnessed the loudest and most active online conversation we’ve had about the team. And only the smallest fragment was about that victory.

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What in the world?

The conversation, which I’ve observed from a distance, has ranged from frustrating to thoughtful to petty to downright funny ( such as the social media poster who told everyone to “drink your $15 beers and sing your anthem by Johan and the Whale” had me giggling in my seat last night). 

Without taking a bold stand or making any proclamations, I want to attempt to make some observations about this moment.  Since anyone reading this likely knows the details (and because this is all pretty in-house stuff), I’m going to stick with a broad overview without rehashing the details:

1. The circuit of communication

Anyone who is a member of an official Supporters Group (“SG”) but was NOT part of the voting group that published the initial statement calling for the boycott yesterday likely went through the only ironic hermeneutic that I went through trying to understand what was going on. Of the many charges the statement made, it expressed concern that the Club was taking actions without communicating with the Backline and with its constitutive Supporters Groups. Meanwhile, after the Backline statement was “published,” the Slack for the SG I joined was littered with members asking, “WTF is going on?” “Who put out this Backline statement in our names?” 

It was bizarre. A statement charging the club with not communicating with the SGs emerged with little warning or communicating to the members of those SGs. Who was speaking? Under what charge? 

I know there are answers to these questions, but the larger point is that we all need to take this as a lesson to slow down, converse before making large claims on behalf of others. Should the Club spend more time speaking to the Backline collective? It appears so, as Backline members repeatedly pushed a number of points in posts covering a number of “broken promises.” But, similarly, while democracy and discussion is always difficult and certainly slows things down, the folks who issued the statement needed to take far more time to canvas their members.

And maybe we should all take this as a moment to think about how we operate together.

2. The importance of Supporters Groups and their tendency to overstate that importance

One of the arguments (or claims) that emerged repeatedly in the online conversation was about the importance of SGs in the creation of a fan community/fan experience. 

Let’s make this clear from the start:  I will unabashedly and without shame note—as I have multiple times before—that I would not be a soccer fan without the existence of SGs. When I first starting going to soccer games, I didn’t care about the actual game, but the enthusiasm of SGs was infectious. Not only was it fun being with a group chanting and cheering, but it also made me feel part of a community. My love for the game actually came after my love of community.

So, when I read some of the defenders of the original post discuss the importance and centrality of SGs and the Backline, I get it. I do. 

While I no longer want to sit in the supporters section because I, in my own personal taste, now find it a distraction from the actual game, I love that they are there. I love thinking that someone is getting seduced by the same excitement and sense of community that brought me in. I like that they make noise during the game. 

Are SGs important?  Absolutely.

That said, there were a number of posts that leaned into—or pointed in the direction of—claiming that the fans who sat in the SG section were the most dedicated of fans, the people who create the atmosphere that everyone comes for. Such claims put me on edge. 

First off, there is absolutely no need to judge levels of “fanship.” You don’t win anything for your level of commitment to begin with and holding yourself above others is never a good look. 

Secondly, there are many different ways to be a “fully committed, die hard” fan without taking on the look or actions of so-called superfans. I’ve discovered this for myself as my desires for game day experience have changed. I’m all in. I never miss a match, and I lose sleep thinking about the team. And I’m not the only one. 

But, third, and perhaps most importantly, while I love to have the Backline doing its thing, for me, it becomes aural wallpaper during the actual game. Because SGs of every team select from the same, or similar group of chants, you basically hear similar sounds no matter what MLS stadium you go to. Indeed, in many games I hear the away supporters and the Backline doing different versions of the same chant.

I’m thrilled the Backline is there. It’s clear that the players are forever grateful. And indeed, it is part of the overall atmosphere of the game day experience. However, if the Backline really believes that their presence is a non-negotiable part of the way everyone else in the stadium experiences the game, they’re simply wrong. 

We could all use a little humility to mix with our enthusiasm.

3. Missing information

One of the odd elements of the conversation that took place after the original post were variations of Backline members claiming they are misunderstood.

“People just don’t understand everything that we do.”

“People don’t understand the long history of grievances between the Backline and the club.” 

I buy that.  But isn’t that the responsibility of those Backline representatives to educate us prior to launching a protest? I mean, such posters were right in that I clearly don’t understand everything SGs do beyond watch parties, tailgates, and charity events. But I’m willing to learn. I don’t know much about the conflicts and broken promises, but I’m willing to learn. 

Might it not have been more effective to have been working on a communication strategy with the public, with dedicated fans, rather than airing a list of complaints that few on the outside were likely to understand? 

4. The upside

Look, I’m pretty sure there are numerous upsides to this awkward moment. Hopefully, the Backline representatives will have productive conversations with the club itself. Hopefully, those same representatives will find new and more productive ways to communicated with, and not at, the membership of the SGs (again, including myself). 

But the biggest upside I see is this: Nashville is still a relatively young organization and a relatively young fan community (no jokes about my age please). We are still learning who we are, what we are and what we want to be. This moment, as awkward as it is, will become part of our lore, part of what we remember, part of what we joke about, for years. 

If we take this moment as a time to talk to one another, rather than make light of one another, to transcend the shortcuts social media encourages, this could be a generative moment for us all.

In the meantime, we beat Seattle home and away.  We are massive.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of Broadway Sports Media as a whole.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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