Major League Soccer Has a Bullshit Problem

On Anthony Precourt, Nazis, and a league that can’t say what it means.

Yesterday evening, a couple hours after Liverpool won the Champions League final and the rest of the world had stumbled off to drink about it, New York City FC and the Columbus Crew played a soccer game. It didn’t mean much, just another regular season fixture in front of a few thousand families and friends on the back acres of the Ohio State Fairgrounds. The only remarkable thing about the game is that it happened at all.

Last year, you may have heard, the Crew was saved. What this means is that after Major League Soccer spent fourteen months or so trying to relocate one of its founding clubs from Ohio to Texas at the behest of the team’s private equity bro owner, a sentient pair of Sperry Top-Siders named Anthony Precourt, it was forced to change course when this plan proved to be extremely unpopular with everyone not named Anthony Precourt. From a certain angle it was a feel-good story. A community banded together, flamed the shit out of the smug asshole who was trying to take their team, and won. The Crew stayed. It reminded us that fans have a voice.

It also reminded us, in case we hadn’t been paying attention, that MLS has a bullshit problem.

Before anyone mistakes this for a Billy Haisley article, let’s discuss what the operative word here does and doesn’t mean. Bullshit is a term of art. As defined by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his 1986 essay “On Bullshit,” pretty much the definitive treatment of the subject, it is not quite the same as lying. The quintessential form of bullshit is a statement “grounded neither in a belief that it is true nor, as a lie must be, in a belief that it is not true. It is just this lack of connection with truth—this lack of concern for how things really are—that I regard as the essence of bullshit.”

Frankfurt is aware that his word has a much broader range of usages, and that “the expression bullshit is often employed quite loosely—simply as a generic term of abuse, with no very specific literal meaning.” When Haisley files his five hundredth Deadspin post calling MLS bullshit, he could mean to communicate nothing more than that the soccer is bad. But the fuller version of the Deadspin critique of MLS, the only take the site has ever had on top-flight men’s club soccer in the United States, is that the league is fundamentally phony, devoted to gaslighting a bunch of Capri Sun-sucking American rubes into believing our soccer is not bad. That’s more like the kind of bullshit Frankfurt is talking about.

Maybe at one time MLS was bullshit in the Deadspin sense. Maybe, for teams languishing at the bottom of the table while their billionaire owners put their payroll toward Tim Howard’s retirement account or their stadium nest egg toward massage parlor handjobs in Palm Beach, it still is. Lately, however, the league’s pollsters and focus groupers have reported that what fans really want is to watch domestic soccer that’s more competitive on a global scale, and against all odds MLS has responded with a series of reforms that have—gradually, haltingly—started to make that happen.

But better soccer means more money. And if there’s one thing money loves, it’s bullshit.

The vast and varied chronicles of Anthony Precourt’s bullshit could fill volumes, and probably whenever soccer historians get around to it they will. So let’s just stick to one example that illustrates the general concept.

From the moment he acquired the Crew in 2013, Precourt had his sights set on Texas. Even as he publicly “emphasized that he [was] completely committed to keeping the team in Columbus,” his company negotiated a clause in the purchase agreement that would allow him to move the team to Austin. Predetermined conclusions have a way of fostering bullshit. When Precourt Sports Ventures announced in 2017 that it was “exploring strategic options” including “potentially relocating the Club to the city of Austin, Texas,” the statement quoted league commissioner Don Garber bemoaning the sorry state of the club’s “business metrics.” Which metrics, exactly? The only one the statement identified was attendance, and the prescription for improving it was to move the team to “a downtown stadium location or . . . a site that is a destination for the entire community.”

But downtown stadiums, as other MLS clubs have learned, aren’t always easy to come by. The search for a stadium site soon broadened to include McKalla Place in far north Austin, which PSV president Dave Greeley wasn’t thrilled about. “A major issue is immediate access,” he told the Austin American Statesman in February of last year. “Short of drone deliveries, I’m not sure how you get fans in there.”

Three months later, of course, PSV unveiled a plan to build a stadium at McKalla Place. It would offer “access for all Austinites, who can come to the soccer park on any day of the week and enjoy walkability, push a stroller, throw a Frisbee in the park area, not just to attend a soccer match,” Greeley announced. “What’s great about this site, is it’s a multi-mobile [sic] transportation venue. That means you can get here in so many ways: bus, rail, you can drive, you can park remotely and walk, you can take a ride share, you can ride your bike.” Somehow drones seemed to have dropped off the list.

So which one is it, an inaccessible wasteland or a bikeable, frisbeeable paradise? The thing about bullshit is it doesn’t matter. Neither of Greeley’s statements evinced any particular concern for how things really are. Each was intended to produce an effect, first to persuade Austin to offer Precourt a better site and then, when that failed, to convince the city that the deal left on the table was the best of all possible worlds. Don Garber went along with it, expressing his excitement for a deal that will see Precourt’s new Austin expansion team play twice as far from downtown as Columbus currently does. This, too, is bullshit.

If you’re looking for bullshit, there’s no easier place to find it than in a well-drafted statement. “The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are replete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept,” Frankfurt writes. Indeed, the better the PR team, the better the bullshit. The best produce “carefully wrought bullshit” (a phrase which Frankfurt points out is kind of at odds with the whole excretory metaphor).

But sometimes what makes a public statement bullshit is what’s not in it. A cousin of the lie by omission, this kind of bullshit involves a refusal to say what the speaker means, or to take any kind of position on the subject the statement purports to address. If you do it right, you can craft an entire statement like this without ever having to decide what you believe in the first place. That’s where NYCFC has so far come down on its problem with what have variously been described as “far-right-wing supporters,” “hate groups,” “white supremacists,” or, in the most common shorthand, “Nazis.”

Rumors of skinheads in NYCFC’s supporters’ section have been around since the club’s first season, but the latest flare-up started, inevitably, on Twitter. Last October, just before the playoffs, an activist named Shaun King tweeted this to his 1.1 million followers:

It may have been well intentioned, but this tweet is bullshit. Who were these violent bigots? Who’s the “we” who identified them? Unless the skinheads were holding their chapter meetings in the Yankee Stadium bleachers, why was the tweet about NYCFC instead of, say, whatever far-right organization was sponsoring their gang assault outings? King knew but didn’t say, and by his silence he made sure that the association between “NYCFC fans” and “violent white supremacists” would become a generalized one. Anybody who’s ever attended a sporting event in the same stadium as strangers they might not want to get a beer or, you know, attend a Charlottesville rally with later can see the problem with this kind of mass guilt by association.

But an organization with “FC” in its name is, by its own styling, a club: not a fungible NFL or NBA franchise but something spiritually descended from soccer’s Old World membership associations, the kind of clubs where people used to actually do stuff besides go to games. An organization like that represents something. It has a responsibility to its community, starting with defining who exactly the community is and what they stand for. Without that, the whole idea of a football club is bullshit.

As it turned out, King’s “many” white supremacists were a couple of NYCFC supporters among a group arrested for beating up protesters at a Proud Boys rally in Manhattan. Without even trying to untangle the extremist group affiliations involved or to figure out who was a “skinhead” versus an “ultra-nationalist” or whatever, anyone could see that these were not guys you’d want to be in any kind of club with. At least one of the NYCFC fans had literally marched in Charlottesville. Very fine people indeed.

Now maybe this is going out on a limb, but it seems like the reasonable thing for New York City FC to do at this point would have been to loudly and repeatedly reject any association with these groups or their ideologies and promise to keep their members out of the supporters’ section. Like, this is not a final exam stumper in public relations school. Instead, for months NYCFC said as little as possible. Club execs declined interviews and issued a statement referring to a “zero tolerance policy for hate related offences of any kind at our matches or events” and asking fans to “report conduct that does not fall in line with our Club’s core value of inclusivity to our Fan Services team 855-776-9232 (Option 3).” Stirring stuff, right? That sneaky British “c” in “offences” really drives home the authentic expression of New York values.

You probably know the rest of the story. On opening day of the 2019 MLS season, the Huffington Post dropped a long article on “fascism in the stands” at NYCFC games. Don Garber responded Garberishly, telling reporters that “our job is not to judge and profile any fan” (which the league’s own Fan Code of Conduct made clear was bullshit). NYCFC, for its part, tweeted a tiny-print image referring again to a “zero tolerance policy” at games, without any hint of what the statement was responding to or what, exactly, the club really stood for. Then it went silent again.

It’s not hard to see what was going on here. At bottom the league’s studied neutrality was “Republicans buy sneakers too,” except instead of Republicans the response was calculated not to alienate any customers who might happen to sympathize with actual Nazis. More charitably, though, you could view Garber’s claim that “getting into profiling who people are” is a “slippery slope” and NYCFC’s blinkered focus on conduct at games as a perspicacious refusal to engage in creepy stuff like monitoring fans’ social media conduct. When you get right down to it, there’s a reasonable case that policing fans’ conduct at games is all the club, as opposed to the supporters’ groups, should really be doing about the Nazi problem.

But there’s still the question of what NYCFC is saying—or not—about its values. Pointing to policies isn’t enough. Compare the club’s statement to one from Chelsea calling racist fans “an embarrassment to the vast majority of Chelsea supporters who won’t tolerate them in their club.” Better yet, look at how NYCFC’s own supporters have tried to cut through the club’s bullshit. A few weeks after the Huffington Post article, NYCFC posted a video about a guy named Omari who’s made himself the team’s unofficial pigeon mascot. The video itself was good, just a fan talking about community and inclusivity and stuff, but in context it was easy to read the “Everyone Has a Voice” packaging as more spineless both-sidesism from a club still struggling with the Nazi problem. So Omari took on himself to spell out what the video didn’t say.

That is what not-bullshit looks like.

Why does bullshit matter? The philosopher Max Black, in his essay against “falsidical humbug,” quotes Montaigne’s reason for hating lies: “We are human beings, and hold together only by speech.” Every conversation, every sentence, is an act of community. Every effort to undermine communication likewise undoes community. “It seems reasonable to conclude,” writes Black, “that a liar is, in a radical way, sapping the foundations of social institutions, all of which depends upon the general effectiveness of speech.”

But liars at least care about how things really are, even as they try to fool you about it. Bullshitters are worse, devaluing not just speech but the significance of truth itself. They’re the real boogeymen of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” the speechifiers whose careful turns of phrase are “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” They’re the sophists Socrates was always chipping away at with a thousand and one variations on the question Black recommends as our first defense against humbug: “Do you really mean that?”

Soccer shouldn’t have this problem. The best part about sports is that they are, as the novelist Harry Crews once put it, “that which does not admit of bullshit.” Bodies in motion can’t dissemble. “If you tell me you can bench press 450, hell, we’ll load up the bar and put you under it. Either you can do it or you can’t do it—you can’t bullshit,” Crews said. “Ultimately, sports are just about as close to what one could call the truth as it is possible to get in this world.”

In the 76th minute of last night’s game, Taty Castellanos scored a goal to draw NYCFC level with the Crew. It was a line drive into the side netting from thirty-plus yards out, a real “either you can do it or you can’t do it” kind of strike, no bullshit about it. The 13,704 fans announced at Columbus’s not-quite-downtown stadium fell silent. In New York we did the opposite, jumping around and yelling and hugging in the Upper East Side bar where I hang out with friends I would never have met if not for this club.

On the other side of the bar, maybe thirty feet away, one of the violent bigots from Shaun King’s tweet was doing the same with his friends. They weren’t Sieg Heiling or assaulting antifa protesters or anything like that. They were just celebrating a goal, singing Spanish songs their supporters’ group imported from Latin American soccer to MLS. The Latino skinhead guy looked happy.

And you know what? I’m sort of okay with that. People with awful pasts have to keep existing somewhere, and if you can look past the sport’s bloody history of hooliganism and see MLS for the safe and honestly pretty wholesome family entertainment it currently is, it’s possible to imagine that watching a soccer game might be the healthiest place for a guy like that to be. Yet that history is real, and racism is real, and ignoring them is dangerous. MLS and NYCFC need to start being a lot louder and less equivocal about this community and the one that marched in Charlottesville being very much an us-or-them choice. Anything less is bullshit. ❧

Image: Mark Tansey, The Innocent Eye Test