In a recent GQ Magazine article, Andrew Hankinson offered a rather scathing critique of MLS supporter culture using several members of Sons of Ben, the Philadelphia Union supporters group, as his guinea pigs. Turns out, his efforts weren’t entirely appreciated on this side of the pond.
I will be the first to acknowledge that elements of Hankinson’s characterization of MLS fans ring true. You don’t have to dig too deeply to excavate heaping piles of awkwardness, ill-informed posturing, and a lingering second-hand stench, especially if you have some familiarity with established supporter groups abroad. But that’s an easy critique of a supporter culture that’s barely a decade old, or in the case of Sons of Ben, barely a few years old. Hankinson’s one-sided analysis also ignores an obvious counterpoint: namely, how impressive it is that significant supporter groups even exist in a league that not too long ago almost exclusively (and naively) catered to families and young kids.
Run of Play’s Brian Phillips, Match Fit’s Jason Davis, and Brody Chacha, one of the Union fans profiled by Hankinson, have all voiced concerns with Hankinson’s myopic depiction of the way some MLS fans choose to express themselves and the underlying claim that MLS supporters lack authenticity. As Phillips aptly points out, authenticity is a fallacy in modern society. It’s an easy thing to claim, but harder to actually pull off in a world where everyone is constantly borrowing everything from everyone else.
But coming from the self-proclaimed home of “proper football,” Hankinson has every right to judge our soccer culture. In fact, it would take superhuman discipline for someone in his position not to judge, especially when you consider that significant portions of our own supporters are just as judgmental (self included at times). But in return, we have every right to respond. And we should. And we did.
In a very neat way, this episode has turned into a rehashing of the Revolutionary War, without the casualties, neatly tucked away between the virtual pages of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. What we’ve witnessed is a gentlemanly tussle using the written word. Fun for everyone, but not very hooligany. Surely, proper hooligans everywhere are disappointed with how this has unfolded.
But, without turning this into a debate about cultural relativism, we can probably accept Hankinson’s view that MLS supporter culture is rife with contradiction and comedy. How else do you explain someone who explicitly identifies as a skinhead, but wants to reject all the connotations that accompany the skinhead movement? What else can you say about professionals and suburbanites who obviously yearn to be pseudo-hooligans in spite of claims to the contrary, yet, from my completely unempirical studies, are more likely to have only brawled on Xbox? While these extreme characterizations hide much of the gray areas, you would have to be a willfully naive observer to ignore these glaring themes in US soccer. But let’s not let Mr. Hankinson forget that his terraces aren’t exactly full of tatted up brawlers anymore either. Poseurness is certainly not, and never has been, exclusively American. In fact, most fans on both sides of the Atlantic largely participate to simply enjoy the camaraderie and support their teams.
The reality is that MLS supporters are in an awkward position where we will be perpetually judged by others until we can honestly create something that outsiders deem worthy. But we don’t have to seek or wait for outside approval. We can simply choose to put our heads down and keep doing what we’re doing, ignoring what other seemingly enlightened outsiders say. However, judging from our quick (and understandable) reaction to condescending attitudes from abroad, that’s not going to happen any time soon.
Alternatively, we can continue to proactively borrow from others, but that just makes it easy for those from the borrowed culture to judge.
Or perhaps, we can really chart our own path, an option that I call the Chappelle “Zip it Up; Zip it Out” approach. We create our fan culture from domestic scratch. Everything: MADE IN THE USA. Think about that. It might look something like this:
1. Instead of singing, we could perform spoken word. We invented spoken word.
2. We could all dress in denim from head to toe, wear headbands made of bacon, sing country ballads, hum jazz tunes, and freestyle all of our game commentary.
3. We could breakdance to the stadium instead of walk.
4. We could embrace confusion. From the outside, we may look confused, but really, we’re just a reflection of what we are as a country, a diverse mixture of everyone from everywhere. We could sing songs in multiple languages. Wait, we already do that.
5. We could start our own terminology for everything, rename positions, and call every player “guy” or “dunn,” except for the goalkeeper, who we would call “Zip It Ups.”
Hankinson would have had no choice but to write a different article if we had adopted the “Zip it Up” approach. But his article probably would have been about how we have completely bastardized the game and have no idea how to support properly. Come to think of it, we were never going to win that article, just like we are never going to win the supporter culture debate in the near future. So, in the meantime, I suggest we have some fun with it and “Zip it Up and Zip it Out!!!”