Sons of Ben

It’s not a one-way street

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.

Displays

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.”

Discussions

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.”

Discontent

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.”

38 Comments

  1. Phil Naegely says:

    I’d like to say one thing. I get where both sides are coming from, yet I think the team should be careful to infringe on First Amendment rights.

    Good interview with SoB President, PSP.

    • I couldn’t make it to the match last Saturday so this is all hypothetical for me, but I do see the point in trying to keep things positive overall. I think the tifo as described is a bit clever and a bit mean. I don’t know how I would have felt if I had seen it myself at PPL. I do think that the more people pile on Nick, the more sympathy I have for him. He’s right when he says the team has only played five years and yet,… the parity in MLS is so ridiculous, how hard would it have been to do just a little bit more? Sometimes I feel like Homer Simpson going through all five Kübler-Ross stages of grief in six seconds.

      • Phil Naegely says:

        Well Osager, I think Nik is very much to blame for the team’s failing season this year (missing the playoff.). Pride is unhealthy and I think that is what is ultimately hurting Sak and the Union. (Sak’s pride not the players that is).

      • Osager, I would agree with you but then we would both be wrong. The SOB’s were not racists, idiots, nor thugs. Nor were they bashing the team. They upheld their etiquette rules. The SOB’s are paying customers. They have a right to express their displeasure. The notion that the SOB’s passion can be selectively accepted when they are within the etiquette is ludicrous. The banners were humorous and on point. The front office is not the team. Nick Sak allegedly not seeing the tifo is to be questioned. Who else would have the gall to take such an insecure action? Nick can’t handle the truth. He has a history of failure. I am not renewing my season tickets. I have written the front office about that. I also let them know my displeasure in their fake and suspiciously timed email survey on the Open Cup. The front office does not like the conversation, so they are changing the conversation. Strike a blow on the Sak. Drop your tickets. Let them see our no’s hit the bottom line. Then change will occur. Until then Nick will let us eat from his cake of arrogance.

      • Sak’s comment about the club having only been around for 5 years is b.s. Every team that has entered the league after us has already accomplished more than we have. So that excuse is not relevant. The fact is, there are very few reasons for this team’s failings other than the ones Sak doesn’t want to admit to.

      • Five years is a long time to put together a strong team foundation and be able to compete. As Nick Sakiewicz once said, “First, it’s important to reiterate that one of our top priorities is and always will be to put a team on the field each year that has a real chance of competing for an MLS Cup title” (http://www.philadelphiaunion.com/news/2012/02/letter-union-fans-nick-sakiewicz)

        • BUSTED! ! Sakisms should be on tifos throughout ppl park, the draft and every time Sakiewicz makes a public appearance.

  2. This is not North Korea. Nick should put on his big-boy pants and let criticism roll off his back. And if he truly didn’t see the tifo and authorize/demand their confiscation (which is subject to doubt), then at the very least he needs to accept responsibility for a serious error in judgement that his staff made and apologize to the Sons of Ben. IMHO

  3. Dude’s gotta go.

  4. While I do not agree with the tifo being confiscated, everyone need to drop the First Ammendment argument because it does not apply. More importantly, Hanson’s comments are spot on. The FO loves to use images of the SOB and TRE in their promotional pieces and marketing, but they also need to accept criticism. This is Philly and it’s going to happen when you don’t win and more so when your team falls apart in a playoff race.

    • The owners of the team and the owners of the stadium are two separate entities. The stadium is owned by the county (aka the taxpayers), and so it is very much a violation of first amendment rights – at least as much as it would be if the tifo(s) were displayed and confiscated on any other publicly owned site. An employee of a corporation should not have the right to suppress free speech on publicly owned land unless it is vulgar/violent. And if that were the reason they used, I’d question it less. But no, the only reason they gave is essentially ‘we didn’t like the personal message it delivered.’ It had nothing to do with protecting the fans at the game and everything to do with a smug, corrupt ownership group trying to cover their own ass (and failing).

      • Preface: I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on television. (Or in other words, this is not intended as legal advice blah blah blah.)
        .
        This is, at best, a grey area based on my understanding. You’re correct that the stadium is owned by the county. However, the other factor that plays into it is the fact that the stadium – and all aspects of its operation – is leased to a private company. A private company cannot infringe upon somebody’s First Amendment right to free speech, as the First Amendment only guarantees that government shall not infringe upon that right.
        .
        To my understanding, there are nuances that come into play because of the lease agreement. Also, it was determined long ago that First Amendment rights are not absolute – that there are times the government can quell free speech. For example, it’s against the law to walk into a movie theater and yell, “FIRE!” Similarly, you cannot walk into a courtroom and bellow, “That dude is guilty and the judge is a moronic pig!”
        .
        So long story short (I know, too late): it’s not clear cut that this has anything at all to do with free speech, but it probably doesn’t. It wasn’t the government that confiscated the tifos, it was a private business. There is plenty to argue about around this topic without getting into the murky territory of First Amendment rights and such. Simply, this was shitty even without free speech being a part of the picture.

    • Phil Naegely says:

      No KMC I do not need to drop the 1st Amendment argument. It’s a clear violation and if i was the BFB i would be suing.

      • maybe you should withhold your minimally-informed constitutional arguments until you’ve actually read the free speech clause of the 1st amendment. Especially before you cite a “clear violation”.

        The 1st amendment protects us from the government, not companies unless they are seeking legal retribution.

        I think we’re all agreed that what the Front Office did was dumb and wrong, but certainly not illegal.

        I, for one, am a little tired of the loud-people-minority not knowing the difference.

  5. old soccer coach says:

    A point of historical precedent is whether the club has ever allowed positive banners that were not pre-approved to remain displayed. If they have been strict about enforcing the pre-approved rule, then they are being consistent in this case as well, but if they have not been strict then this case becomes much more focused on the specific content of these tifo rather than on the the issue of pre-approval.

  6. Keep up the pressure on this SOBs. Let’s see more of the same TIFO at Superdraft. Let Nick get out his petard & hoist himself away.

  7. PD in Wilmington says:

    Folks, it’s a corporation. At the risk of sounding like a crazy…. We’ve been moving our society bit by bit to a place where the corporation has more rights than the individual. Their rights trump yours (unless you’ve been living under a rock the past 10 years, you can’t honestly be surprised by this). Most folks have ignored the legal and non-legal precedents that have been causing this tidal change. Besides, if they have your admission ticket, what do they really care? You’ve given them the power to survive another day and the resources to wait your discontent out.

    You want to stop it? Use your money, not your words. Boycott matches. Don’t renew season ticket subscriptions. Chant and sing like hell from the parking lot to support the players (after parking at an independent lot). Take the money away. Then you’ll see action. Your money is your voice.

    • the power always lies with the consumer- just takes a joint likeminded effort-
      .
      for all those who have spent money on season tickets its choosing to ‘waste’ that investment to make the statement and therefore the change. At the minimum, while the corporation may have your money up front because you purchased the tickets in advance: no concessions, no FanZone, no shirts, no hats, no beer, no parking— one or two games of that would be a wake up call.
      .
      The power always lies with the consumer- just takes a likeminded effort and leadership and we will follow.
      .
      This city is the birthplace of the voice of dissent- a nation was outlined here.

      • this is a good concept – I still want to go to the games but don’t have to spend a cent in PPL. Its how I have always gone to eagles and phillies games anyway – park in
        FDR park, tailgate, then head in – for phils games we lately have not headed in in a timely manner.

  8. I love this website!! I think we as fans should always take our lead from the SOBs. I am not a member but support all they do and have done for this club.Thanks for a great job and smart level headed approach to this matter! Doop on in the River end!
    P.s. Keep up the great work Ed !!

  9. Get to Garber. Make a big enough fuss to where it’s a MLS image problem. Don’t renew season tickets. If you go, don’t buy merchandise. Don’t buy concessions. Keep complaining. Keep exposing. He’s already starting to crack. It’s working. #SaveOurUnion

  10. Way to go SOB’s. The ground swell of support for an MLS team in Philadelphia was there at the advent of MLS itself. Sakiewicz an cronies hopped on the bandwagon. MLS was going to be in Philadelphia whether Sakiewicz and cronies got involved or it was someone else. If Sakiewicz were to take his toys(UNION) and run home to mommy , I’ve no doubt MLS would still put a team here. The arrogance of Sakeiwicz and cronies to think they can bully and take this fan base for granted is a huge mistake! A lesson Sakiewicz and cronies will learn. Running this top media and sports market like a 2nd rate outpost won’t fly here. This is Philly and we don’t take BS from anyone! No peace for the snake oil salesman.

    • No peace until this organization and team are as first rate as any elite organization and team in MLS. Talent, management, academy etc.. That’s Philly Though! !

  11. So here’s a question for folks who may know more than I do about the situation. Earlier in the week, I saw a comment somewhere that said the tifos in question were all included in the pre-game drop-off that takes place. True statement? If so, wasn’t that tacit approval from the team by not confiscating them at that time?
    .
    Related question: if these were not part of that package, how did they get in? I know that when Le Toux came back to play the Union while with Vancouver my daughter made a sign that said, “Merci et bon chance” (Thank you and good luck) and had a big “9” in the center. Because it was just posterboard (no polls, etc), fan services told us all we had to do was show it at the gate on our way in. And that proved to be true. So how did these get in? Somebody, somewhere, employed by the Union had to see these banners / tifos / signs prior to them entering the building. That’s tacit approval from somebody that they didn’t violate the rules. Or am I off my rocker (again)?

  12. MarkZ, you are incredible ⚽

  13. I hope Mr. Hanson was misquoted but setting the record straight would mean saying: “There’s one good year and there’s all the rest of our years, which are bad.” And even that’s a concession. Plus the trend is regressive – 3 straight years of playoffs missed. With no articulated plan for changing the direction, no accountability, acute defensiveness & recrimination for fans who express dissatisfaction. #SaveOurUnion

    • Ed Farnsworth says:

      Mr. Hanson was not misquoted anywhere in this article. Since you refer to no specific quote, I can only assume you are referring to when he says, “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,” or “There’s going to be good years and there’s going to be bad years.” In the first quote he is speaking in general terms about the ups and downs the Union have gone through and how fan sentiment may rise or fall accordingly. In the second quote he is again speaking in general terms and is not offering an opinion on a specific number of good or bad years the Union may have experienced.

      There is a significant difference between “setting the record straight” and offering an interpretation of what someone has said, or, more precisely, what you would have liked someone to have said.

      • Ed!
        I didn’t intend to be taken so seriously, but I sincerely appreciate your defense of the accuracy of your journalism and the high quality of all the reporting and viewpoints you publish on this site. I intended to create a humorous version of the second quote – a quote that reflects a quite generous view of management’s record. I’m sorry for the confusion, or the pretense that Mr. Hans6has any other view than reported and for taking any of your time away from the great work you do – especially at what may be a pivotal time in the history of this club. Cheers

  14. It’s interesting that people aren’t discussing what I find to be the scariest part of this thing: the “negative environment” comment by Sak. That’s a very broad brush. Who decides what is negative? Who decides what is negative to the point of affecting the environment? What is the environment? Is only premeditated negativity considered (as in tifo)? Or will spontaneous negativity be squashed? Is booing a negative environment? I find people going to games and talking throughout the game without paying attention or playing with their phone the whole time creates a negative environment. Will that be stopped? Confiscating this tame tifo was one of the most spineless actions I have witnessed at a sporting event. Whoever greenlighted it should be held accountable.

  15. Tifogate was not a violation of anybody’s 1st Amendment rights. Not even close. Evidently some Union fans don’t understand what the 1st Amendment means.

    The 1st Amendment means you can say what you want without being arrested or imprisoned for it. Period.

    The 1st Amendment does not mean you can say whatever you want whenever you want without having to take responsibility for it.

    Was anyone threatened with arrest for Tifogate? Not that I’m aware of. Therefore it is not a violation of 1st Amendment rights.

    I’m not defending the actions taken by the club here, just saying that those who are claiming this is violation of the 1st Amendment are wrong and should have paid more attention to this in civics class.

  16. Because I’m bored, and because I’m a nerd, I have been reading up on Free Speech Rights in publicly owned stadiums. To paint a very broad brush on a very nuanced topic, and after an email from a lawyer who write a well respected opinion on the subject, here is what I’ve learned (so far). Most cases of free speech in publicly owned stadiums are settled out of court, with the management company or public land holder paying the party who felt their rights were violated. Most lawyers that have written on the subject feel that this is because courts will rule on the side of free speech. The very few that have gone to court with free speech implications, ruled on behalf the individual right, not the corporation leased to run the facility, but there has been no true landmark case. Most law review opinions I’ve read seem to think that publicly owned stadiums should fall under the free speech rights of any publicly owned land. (For instance, pro choice & anti abortion protests in public spaces). Under that standard, none of the banners contained hated speech, depicted violence, or obstructed another person’s view. Therefore, one could argue, since PPL Park is owned by Delaware County, that removing the banners is a free speech rights violation. So many times I hear someone argue that we should know our rights. Clearly, some of you do not.

    • If SoBs were so inclined, they could easily retain excellent lawyers in the area to work for free on advising them of their rights and to represent them should legal action ensue. It’s exactly that kind of negative publicity that could render Garber apoplectic, assuming Sugarman let it happen, and could not only send Sak packing but leave him radioactive. Even Sak could foresee & avoid that by changing or resigning. Just saying.

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