Photo: Shawn Wunder
Kenny Hanson probably imagined his attention after Saturday’s Kansas City game would be on the next day’s events. On Sunday afternoon, a Q&A session with candidates running for a seat on the board of the Sons of Ben in the Philadelphia Union supporters group’s first-ever open election would be taking place at The Fieldhouse.
Instead, the SoB president was thinking about an incident in the River End.
For a brief period in the second half of Saturday’s game — maybe ten minutes according to some — three banners were raised in the Union supporters section. Utilizing the same kind of wit and humor that has informed the best Sons of Ben tifo, one banner portrayed Union CEO Nick Sakiewicz as the Grim Reaper. The other pair spelled out the message, “Death Be Not Proud,” with images of tombstones linking the Union under Sakiewicz with the CEO’s past involvement with the Cup-less New York MetroStars and the defunct Tampa Bay Mutiny.
But for a handful of camera phone pictures tweeted out from the game, it was easy to miss the banners. Eyes at PPL Park, in the stands and in the press box, were focused on the pitch, where the Union were fighting to finish the final home game of a disappointing season with a win.
“From my understanding, unless you were sitting in 136, you had no idea what it said,” Hanson told PSP on Tuesday evening, “I didn’t even see the tifo until I saw it online when I got home from the game.”
Even Nick Sakiewicz says he missed the display, telling MLSsoccer.com and CSN Philly’s Dave Zeitlin, “I didn’t even see the banner and I didn’t even know about it until someone told me.”
But then Union officials moved into to the River End to confiscate the tifo.
While no one was ejected for displaying the banners, whoever made the decision to confiscate them ensured that instead of a few of pictures of dedicated supporters harmlessly expressing discontent with the team’s ownership-level leadership, the result was wider questions about the team’s capacity to handle public criticism. (Another tweet said that a sign critical of Sakiewicz was confiscated during the game in Section 125, and a comment on Reddit says “multiple banners” were removed during the game.)
Within minutes, photos of the banners being confiscated were circulated by fans and local media on social media and references to “tifogate” began to appear on Twitter. Come Sunday, the Philadelphia Daily News ran a column on the incident under the headline, “Philadelphia Union treads on free speech”.
“It would be a lot less than they are dealing with now if they had just left them up,” Hanson said of the confiscation. “Nick didn’t even see them. Now every media outlet is focusing on how they’re trumping our free speech.”
As far as Hanson is aware, it’s the first time tifo has been confiscated in the River End.
When asked why the banners had been removed, a Union spokesperson told PSP it was because the banners had not been pre-approved by the club. As stipulated in the Supporters Code on the Union website, all banners, whether in the River End or elsewhere, must be approved by the club. The policy is aimed at ensuring banners with political or offensive messages aren’t displayed in the stadium.
In his comments to CSN Philly, Nick Sakiewicz went a step further. “PPL Park is supposed to be a positive environment for all the fans that are there,” he said, adding, “And we don’t want anyone in the stadium promoting a negative environment.”
“They have a right to take it down,” Hanson said. “But on the flip side, they need to understand that if that’s the worse that happens as a way that our members show displeasure after five years, they don’t have it that bad.”
As for the idea of promoting a negative environment, Hanson was skeptical.
“If it had been the coach of Columbus portrayed as the Grim Reaper, it would not have been seen as creating a negative environment,” Hanson said. “But because of who it was, members of the front office felt we were creating negativity around the team. It was their call to make, and I think it was a knee-jerk reaction.”
Hanson emphasized the nuances and distinctions that seemed to have been missed by those who decided to remove the tifo. Prime among them is that the Sons of Ben exist to support Philadelphia Union, not Keystone Sports and Entertainment.
“The Sons of Ben are there to support the team, and what that means is the players on the field, the coaches, and their manager,” Hanson said. “That’s who we support. That’s who the Sons of Ben were put here to support, that’s why we were founded. And I do believe that our members have the right to question publicly the way that the team is being handled. If we don’t have the ability to question that in the form of a nonviolent, not-offensive, not-vulgar tifo, then that concerns me.”
He explained, “I can tell you right now, if that tifo had been talking trash on Amobi, or Zac, or Rais for that Chicago goal, we would have self-policed that. But it wasn’t bringing any negative vibes to the team on the field. That’s not something that we would do or ever be OK with.”
Hanson told PSP that discussions have already taken place between the SoB leadership and the Union front office about the incident.
“We’ve had discussions,” Hanson said. “They’ve expressed where they’re coming from, that they felt the tifo that our members brought in created a negative environment, and that they did not go through the proper tifo channels. We expressed where we felt our members need to have the ability to express themselves. We’re a very passionate group of people and, you know, sometimes the passion isn’t going to always reflect the way they want us to have.”
Hanson said discussions with the club about how the tifo incident was handled will continue.
“We have a pretty good relationship with the organization, but we can’t let that relationship get in the way of our members being able to express themselves,” Hanson said. “We have to be able to have an outlet. When people feel they don’t have an outlet to express their frustration, then they look for other ways, they look for larger ways. I’m not saying we’re there, but people are pretty angry about this, and I think they have a right to be.”
For Hanson, a particularly frustrating aspect of the incident has been the sense that the club is willing to celebrate the Sons of Ben’s passion when it suits them, as was the case in the US Open Cup final, and brush it aside when it does not.
“It’s not a one-way street; it’s an all-or-nothing,” Hanson said. “We can’t be that passionate when things are going well and then be expected when things are not going as well to be silent.”
“There’s going to be good years and there’s going to be bad years, and I think that during the bad times, it’s important to understand that some of our members have a way showing their displeasure.”
As for that displeasure among Union fans, Hanson said, “As an organization, we don’t take a stance on this. We’re not going to come out and say, ‘You know what, this is what we need to do to protest the front office.'”
He continued, “A lot of times we try to lead our members in a direction, but sometimes there’s situations where our members need to lead us. When a large portion of our members are expressing anger and concern over with what’s going on with the way the team is being managed, then I think that’s something that we have to respect. And not only that, I think they should have our support. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re going to be sending out emails about how you should bring your tifo out that’s criticizing Nick or any of the front office officials. We would never do that. But if people chose to do that it needs to be organic.
“It’s what this organization was founded on.”