Keeping Score

Why Sports Teams Can’t Regulate Speech

Major League Soccer is threatening sanctions for unruly fans. One team is offering a good behavior bonus. Why the meddling might not work.

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Mike Stobe / Getty Images

Fans cheer during the match between the Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on Sep. 29, 2012 in Harrison, N.J.

Major League Soccer, the 18-year-old U.S. pro league which has raised its profile in recent years, has some pretty foul-mouthed fans. That hardly makes MLS unique. And if the fans are cursing — at their own team, or at an opponent — at least they’re caring.

But have U.S. soccer fans taken foul language too far?  Supporters of some teams have started a tradition: during goal kicks, they yell “You Suck, A——” at opposing keepers. And MLS teams, and the league front office, are trying to stop it. has posted letters that two teams, Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls, have sent to fan groups, threatening sanctions if these fans don’t clean up their language. The letters specifically refer to “You Suck, A——” as the “YSA” chant, which is quite endearing.  “We are focused on fostering a League-wide culture that embraces the passion of our core fans,” reads the Real Salt Lake letter. “That passion, however, must be displayed in a responsible manner that is in accordance with Real Salt Lake and MLS Fan Code of Conduct. Attempts to allow Real Salt Lake supporter clubs (RCB, SCU, La Barra, TRP, and Section 26) to self-eradicate the YSA chant and parts thereof, such as “You Suck … ” — both within groups and throughout the stadium — have regressed since last season.” If behavior doesn’t get better, the team writes, Real Salt Lake and MLS might impose sanctions, which “can include, but are not limited to:”

– No smoke devices, flag poles, banners, or other displays permitted at home or away matches

– Retract parking passes, stadium credentials, and field passes at Rio Tinto Stadium

– Prohibit drums, megaphones, and Capo Stand.

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The Red Bulls, according to Sports Illustrated writer Brian Straus, have taken things a step further. Straus reports that the “team has notified its three fan groups — the Empire Supporters Club, the Garden State Ultras and the Viking Army — that $500 will be contributed to each for every home game during which ‘YSA’ isn’t heard in Red Bull Arena’s South Ward. The money will be doled out in $2,000 increments, meaning the stadium will have to be ‘YSA’ free for four games before the supporters are rewarded.”

Straus obtained a messaged sent by the Empire Supporters Club to its members. “We can use this money for reimbursement for nearly anything we do, from buying batteries for the megaphone to offsetting costs for bus trips,” it said.

But hold on: so if I’m a loyal Red Bulls fan who brings my family to games and doesn’t act profane, I don’t get a bonus. But the guys who have been cursing for years are going to get a prize, for acting like people are supposed to act? I’d like money to offset my trip too – the George Washington Bridge toll is 13 bucks these days. I should have been YSA-ing all along.

Meddling in fan speech is tricky. Sure, YSA is stupid. But tribal chants are big in soccer, probably due to the nature of the game. During the long stretches between scoring chances, why not have a sing-along? Or heckle the other team? And compared to some of the racist chants that have plagued European soccer, YSA is rated-PG.

I’d be surprised if the MLS’ efforts, while well-intentioned and understandable, pay off. The letters read like memos from the principal’s office. If you’re paying hard-earned money to go watch a soccer game, do you want to be told what not to say? The threats could inspire a foul-mouthed response, just to get under MLS’ skin. The payments from the Red Bulls are a more attractive incentive, but seem unfair to well-behaved fans.

Maybe fans just need a reminder: if they’re shouting needless profanity in front of families, YSA goes both ways.

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