When beloved sports teams violate progressive human rights standards, how should fans react?

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When is it OK to continue your ardent engagement with a fandom you love despite emerging controversy around the creator of the particular cultural production? When does the misconduct of an author or director, or a sports team’s management, reach the point where you have to say goodbye?

Such is the dilemma for those of us who support one of North America’s most distinctive pro soccer teams. It will ring familiar to all who have struggled with analogous decisions around the works of people like author J.K. Rowling and TV/movie producer and director Joss Whedon.

Here is the situation facing the nationwide “diaspora” of Portland Timbers supporters: Yet again, there are new revelations of reprehensible behavior by the team’s top management that violates the values held dear by what is arguably the largest, most progressive, and most fervent fan base in North American soccer: values of inclusion, equality for women and LGBTQ people, and human rights.

A widely circulating story in The Oregonian details reports by former employees of a toxic work environment for women in the company that runs the Timbers and the Portland Thorns, who play in the National Women’s Soccer League.

The exhaustively reported piece details instances of women being physically pushed or having objects thrown at them by high-level executive Mike Golub, as well as inappropriate comments and jokes by Golub, the team’s President of Business.

The Golub story follows scandals around former Thorns coach Paul Riley, accused of sexually coercing players, and former Timbers player Andy Polo, accused of domestic abuse.

In those instances, what galls team supporters isn’t just Riley’s and Polo’s alleged misconduct, as bad as it was. It’s the way team management appears to have tried to keep the brewing scandals secret at first and then, when the truth came out, responded in a manner that came off as defensive and dismissive.

Par for the course, you might think—especially if your impressions of pro sports are mainly driven by headlines from the National Football League, where there always seem to be scandals erupting about player misconduct off the field. The most recent case in point: Deshaun Watson.

But as I have written elsewhere, soccer is different—especially the Portland Timbers. Or so we devotees like to think. The generally progressive culture of the sport has made it a refuge for many sports fans—present company included—who are alienated by the NFL and major league baseball, and to a lesser degree the NBA, because of the conservative values and religiosity that permeate those sports.

Progressive soccer culture finds its ultimate expression in the Timbers Army, the large and influential supporters group that packs the north end of the stadium at Timbers’ home games, standing for the entire game while waving scarves and flags and maintaining a steady torrent of songs and chants, orchestrated not by the scoreboard or p.a. system but by the Army’s volunteer capos.

The chants and banners bespeak more than a love for the team, which won the Major League Soccer championship in 2015 and the Western Conference crown in 2018 and 2021. Rampant are themes of inclusion, antiracism, and antifascism. The Army’s crowning glory was the tifo rolled out this past June to mark Pride Month. Photos and videos of the display circulated well beyond soccer circles, hailed by many as a shining example of how to do it when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ community in a time of conservative backlash.

But it hasn’t been all joy in the north end. Signs of protest against club owner Merritt Paulson have been appearing, most memorably the haunting “You knew” banner that caught national attention this past spring—a reference to management allegedly knowing about Riley’s and Polo’s misconduct early on but failing to take responsible action.

In the stands, as on social media and in Portland-area news outlets, sentiment is growing that there’s an irreconcilable gulf between Timbers fan culture and management’s behavior. As Oregonian columnist Bill Oram stated, “Merritt Paulson, you need to get your organization in order.” Other voices contend that it’s too late for that. Time for Paulson to sell the club and get out.

Fans are focusing, too, on how they will exercise what little agency they have. Some vow not to renew their season tickets. Others are forswearing watching the team on TV and participating in social media chatter about what’s happening on the field. Even before the Golub scandal, the leader of our East Coast supporters network (also the drummer at our away-game gatherings) announced on our Facebook page that he could not tolerate team management’s behavior and was no longer willing to throw his time and creative energy into leading the group.

What will I do? This is the question I have asked myself a lot in recent months, and with renewed urgency since the Golub story. I haven’t bailed yet, mainly because I realize that I support the team not out of love for, or loyalty to, the men in management, but because of my affection for the game, the players, and the fans. So, I tell myself, if management is not my reason for supporting the team, it should not be my reason for abandoning it.

Yet …

I see that management’s conduct can get so bad that you reach your limit. I might be reaching mine. I’m finding it harder and harder to watch games with innocent eyes in recent weeks. (The team’s drab performance on the pitch this season certainly isn’t helping.)

Short of canceling the Portland Timbers, there are other avenues of action to consider. Such as pressuring owner Paulson to reform team management or sell the club. Such as pressuring the league to force Paulson to sell. Such as supporting the causes and principles violated by management’s behavior. For example, Arsenal supporters in my state of residence are responding to the Thomas Partey rape allegations by raising funds for the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence—while thoroughly enjoying the team’s competitive resurgence.

Even if soccer means nothing to you, you can probably relate to what Portland Timbers supporters are going through. Did you throw away your once-beloved Harry Potter books and vow never again to watch the movies when J.K. Rowling went peak TERF? Do you retroactively hate “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and force yourself to resist reruns on Hulu now that you know about the abusive behavior of which creator Joss Whedon is accused?

Is it possible to separate the art from the artist—to value the former while rejecting the conduct or politics of the latter?

It’s a far-reaching question, one that bleeds into decisions about the products we buy, the way we interact with noxious political expression and its perpetrators, and all sorts of related matters. Few easy answers are on offer.   

What’s become clear for me, though, is that our forbearance has limits, no matter how much we love the team or the novels or the shows or the films or the products in question. At a certain point, enough is enough, and you can no longer enjoy the given thing no matter how much you used to appreciate it and no matter how much you know you’ll miss it when it’s gone from your life.

Then, there’s only one thing to say, and I hope I never have to say it about the Portland Timbers.

I’m out.

Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion, meaning, and values in public life. A longtime columnist for USA Today, he is the author of three award-winning books, including "Confessions of a...

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