Re: Didn't DC United figure that putting the Screaming Eagles in charge of mentoring kids was a bad idea?
Date: February 14, 2019 12:28PM
It's a rainy Thursday and I've been thinking about this for a few weeks, so I think it's time we discussed the first anniversary of the Strategic Partnership.
Here's a post about soccer supporter culture and how a hobby can become a blood feud.
In the fall of 2017, we were saying goodbye to RFK, us lunatics who love DC United. The crowds were starting to enlarge to give the old girl her proper respects. I still miss her today. Rusty, cavernous, oversized for our needs, but those STANDS. Those beautiful stands.
In one of those final games, I was approached by a member of the Screaming Eagles. I'm a District Ultra, and we tended to fraternize quietly; we all support the same team, after all, and we'd worked on quite a few combined efforts for travel and tifo. They were fine. I liked 'em.
He knew I liked organizing charitable works. He asked how I'd feel about doing it on a larger scale. How large? Stand by, he said. Keep it under your hat.
I should've known something stupid was about to happen.
At the same time, negotiations for the new stadium between the team and the supporters were ongoing. Where would we stand? How much would it cost? What would we call it? Everyone had an idea, everyone had an opinion. But suddenly all the meetings were canceled.
The SE executive board, who are the sort of "democratically elected" kind that basically can only vote for themselves, had struck a deal with the team. Nobody would be able to purchase single tickets into the new section...except through them.
In the middle of Valentine's Day, a new order had been announced. Instead of three diverse, vibrant groups, only one would be recognized. "The Screaming Eagles," the press release read, "will take the lead role to manage all aspects of the supporter culture."
So, about that.
As we said, SE were only one of three groups at the time. La Barra Brava, the original, the famous, the proud, the alcohol-soaked mob. The District Ultras, a breakaway group, the smaller, the more intense, the more unruly, the anarchy to SE's order.
Can you imagine groups of immigrants, outcasts, lunatics and others would take an announcement that they were suddenly under the wing of a group they knew but didn't follow, led by a man that nearly no one knew?
Yes, let's talk about James for a minute.
James, the newly-minted president of SE, was suddenly the focus of an entire community. Thousands of people who were very concerned, and very, very angry. He's a nice enough guy. Loves his kids. Loves his group. Honestly believed he'd saved the scene.
He wasn't ready for us.
Imagine having no social media presence in a moment when everyone suddenly wants to kick your ass. Without even having a Twitter account, he managed to violate the prime directive - "Every day on here, there is a main character, and it is your job to never be it."
Tag. Yer it.
After days of demanding answers from our friends, who claimed (and, in nearly every case, had) no knowledge of what on earth had just transpired, James emerged. There would be a Q&A session on a Tuesday afternoon at a brewery in Lorton, which is highly-on-brand for SE.
Days of silence, the man with the account tried to laugh the outrage and hatred off as "brickbats being thrown our way."
As you can imagine, that phrase spawned merchandise for months.
So, being the enterprising lad I was, and having a short day on site (the benefits of the gig economy!), I went to Lorton. I went to that brewery. And I brought a brick from my front porch. Props are very important when you have a point to make.
Thing is, if you know me, you know I'm not a violent man, and I had no intention of being a violent man that day either. Nor did I become a violent man that day. It's important to have fun, after all.
But, and this is an important part of this story, they didn't know me.
Because what's the point of a community? It's to know each other and tend to their needs when things are rough. It's about keeping the peace in times of anger. If you don't know the people you're working with, you can't lead. It's a paradox - the best leaders follow.
So when a dude shows up in a t-shirt, tactical pants, work boots and a brick, sits himself down at a table and folds his hands like he's waiting for a date, you do one of two things - you ask what the fuck, or you start squirming and debate calling law enforcement.
Nobody talked to me except James. James isn't stupid. This is important. We disagree, but I don't think he's stupid. He didn't know me, but he knew what I represented. "You brought a brick to the bar, so you must want to talk to me," he said with a smile and a handshake.
We got to know each other for the next 90 minutes. I'll always grant him that. In the following months, when people would start dodging phone calls and pretending we weren't as friendly as we thought, he engaged.
That's good politics.
Didn't save him from bad policy.
We found out how he got a deal none of us could get for our people - he spent SE's money on a ton of season tickets, none of which were refundable, on the bet that he could sell them on. I'll be honest - I don't know if he was right, and I don't know if he turned a profit.
But he went for it. He decided a deal that saved his own group would be better than a top-down, FO enforcement of supporter culture. Srdan, the nominal leader of the Ultras (read: it's his charge account), laughed at that notion. "I'd like to see them try," he said with a grin.
So a funny thing happened along the way - Barra and the Ultras were suddenly talking. We were the outgroups now. And we agreed - if you won't work with us to help our guys go see a game in our loud, raucous way, we'd travel to aways and boycott at home.
Here's the fun part.
What's the point of following a soccer team? Love, of course. I've told stories of what this stupid culture of ours gave me. An extended family, the love of my life, and a thing to focus on besides work. These are vital. DCU Therapy is real, and our therapist just fucked us.
And who you are and where you come from shouldn't dictate the terms. Football is for everyone, yeah? Anyone can kick a ball. It's the great leveler. Except in America. In America, it's gentrified and pay-for-play and priced for the bourgeois. That's like NINE other threads.
In RFK, for 21 years, our way was almost a black market. You went to the parking lot with food and drink. You shared. You mingled. You broke bread. Then you got a ticket from someone at SE's table, BB's van, or DU's tree. Then we would go to our places in the expanse and IGNITE.
Now, the only way in was to have a season ticket (which not everyone could afford), or to purchase a ticket from the very people who had politicked their way to the access. That wasn't ever going to fly.
You've brought petty politics to the therapy session. People remember that.
Suddenly, we were doing away trips for the first time as ourselves. The Ultras had always caucused with SE for that in the past; they had the infrastructure and past practice down, so we went along to get along. Clearly that won't work now.
Who's going to get tickets?
Nobody else in DU had time, energy or interest. I don't really have time myself. At that point, I was buying a home, doing 50hrs a week at CBS News, organizing for my union, and it was to the point where people knew if I could make time for you, it mattered. It was important.
I was mad. The guy who had asked if I was interested in expanding charity was actually offering me a seat at their table, at the expense of my friends. I remember when you fuck people like that. You were hurting my friends and offering me favors to soothe the move.
Srdan asked if I was willing to do this year in and year out. I absolutely was. It's a chance to give back to people who, years and years ago when I was still counting my sobriety in days and didn't know where I belonged, told me I was one of them and took me in.
(A sidenote here: I originally was Barra Brava, and left when I sobered up. No disrespect to any of them; I just didn't know how to hang out with them without a drink in hand at that point, so I wandered into the group with straight-edge tendencies. Changing your life is messy.)
So I started with Columbus. It was too late for Orlando and Atlanta, so that would be our first stand. And that was the first shot. I cold-called them on a lunch break during AIPAC, asking about supporter group sales.
The reply I received was startling.
I wondered if the whole league had been directed to route away tickets through SE. Now I had someone claiming it. This particular salesman is no longer with Columbus, but followed the previous owner to Austin, and I think that tells me all I need to know about him in retrospect.
This was all three weeks in. But now I was on fire. I was calling the league. I was calling every team in it. I was bound and determined to find out why the money of my friends and allies wasn't any good to them.
This was now an MLS problem.
So here's the thing: as much as I treat this as a song about love, we all know that soccer is a business, and the teams in MLS exist to make money. That's the point. We're not stupid. But as happens so often, business people forget that the cells in their spreadsheets have souls.
Once you make it a soul problem, people get active. And, well, you know, you pissed off a trained organizer. Maybe don't do that. Organizers know how to tap into anger and make it action. So we acted.
The next day, we had ticket access for Columbus, and the rest of the aways.
I'll always treasure the phone call i got from that guy in SE, the one who offered me a chance to abandon my friends in exchange for photo-op activism. The barely-contained rage in his voice as he chided me for "going nuclear" without checking with him first.
I believe in nukes.
That road trip proved the love was still there - we all went hard, loved our team despite getting destroyed 3-1, and if it had stayed there, it would have been lovely.
If only it had. If only the drunk dude hadn't invaded personal space and made my friend uncomfortable.
Do I think he was setting out to harass her? No. In fact, he had been drunk and angsty enough to make a lot of us angry. He wanted to talk about the troubles while we were in the stadium. I didn't drive to Central Ohio and skip a gig for politics; I'm here for United. Fuggoff.
So he kept going from Ultra to Ultra, looking for someone who would engage him. He didn't MEANT to do the Ben Shapiro DEBATE MEEEEE thing. But he totally did. And so he cornered the girl. The blogger. The vocal critic. And she wasn't here for it either. But he insisted.
He wasn't a small man. Much like myself, he probably wouldn't hurt anyone. But we didn't know him like that. Just like me with a brick, if you don't know what you look like, you're gonna cause a scene. And the scene I saw was intimidation, however inadvertent. A friend agreed.
Dear friends, I have never in my life, until that day, had to ask a woman "Is This Man Bothering You?" In my shitty youth, it wouldn't have occurred to me. But now I'd dragged a lot of people into a road trip. I have a duty of care.
Fuck me. I'm the adult in the room.
So we separated him from her, and we flanked her for the rest of the night, and we all danced and sang for our soccer team, as we do. But the damage was done. And now SHE was mad. And she was going to investigate. She asked other female supporters if this was a thing.
Without naming names (or beards) - it's her investigation, not mine - she found the culture not just in DC, but nationwide. In USMNT circles. Names came out that broke my heart, because they were friends. (Justin Fairfax's revelations are just another in a long line of shitty men I liked.)
At this point, battle lines were drawn. SE felt under siege; they'd been accused of harassment, systemic racism, and general PTAness. DU's rank and file were being shitheads about it. BB were their normal belligerent selves, chucking their empties at the Eagles. And most folks just wanted to watch the fucking game.
Because I don't know how many paragraphs I'm into this at this point but let's be honest with ourselves. This is supposed to be a pastime, right? This is a break from the troubles of work and home and all that. And suddenly now I'm a travel agent and she's on that #MeToo and WHAT?
Why on earth does this matter? Just buy a ticket, right? Just go to the game and sit in your seat and watch. Just do it like other sports. You weirdos who can't just WATCH the game, who have to be a PART of it. Look how self important you must be.
And you know what? Yeah we are.
Like I said. Therapy. Like I've said before. Family. Like anyone who's been in the trenches - community, shared burden, shared joy, shared grief. We all cried for Chico and we all registered as bone marrow donors for Big Rob and we all donated to #kuykenstrong.
We've been there for each other, because we got together in common cause, however silly. No sillier than fez hats and go karts in a parade. No sillier than a fancy hat and a mint julep. No sillier than the fish fry after church. Of course it's nothing. Of course it's everything.
When you fuck up the family, there's gonna be ugliness. Of course there is. But you have to fix the family. And fix it we did. We marched on the stadium, then left it silent for the opener. I got That Phone Call in July. We came home. We were there. There's three symbols in there. The eagle shield of SE. The DC Punk laurel of DU. The skull and crossbones of BB. We were there, all of us, for the magic. And it didn't matter who we were aligned with that day. We hugged everyone and made OMG faces together.
Did it all get resolved in the end? No. We merely got access. SE rank and file still feel hard done by; I don't blame them. There's hard feelings that remain. People I liked won't be in the Chico Stand next year, because their leaders tried to make it the Eagles Nest.
We still aren't one cohesive group. BB and DU are still learning how to coexist in one space. SE have mostly retreated to the edges. At least one person has stated they're afraid of getting hurt.
And my friend? She doesn't come out to games much anymore. We all know why.
Next season is almost upon us. We'll get to start again. We're planning our work, as we do. Maybe we'll do well. Maybe we won't. But our family will be there, and I welcome anyone who wants to be a part of it. There's good people in it. And the bad?
We'll handle it.
If you're planning to be loud, be loud with me, with us. If you need a pal, I'll be your pal. If you need help, I'll come help. If you don't fuck anyone over, you're my friend. I'm easy like that.
Because we do this for love, right?
Of course we do.
It'd be stupid otherwise.