Another day, another post discussing promotion and relegation and American soccer culture.
This one however will hopefully be less excruciating than most pro/rel debates you’ve read on the Internet, but the searing pain is itself very much the point. Reform of US Soccer’s league structure, while important, should not be this hard to talk about. The issue, however, has become a festering sore spot in American soccer culture: something that is approached with sufficient dread to override more serious considerations.
Political activism, in its most basic form, is about turning ideas into reality. That requires a theory of social change: an idea of what actions will lead to that desired end outcome and how. It is not enough just to have a good idea, which, as American soccer continues to grow, pro/rel increasingly appears to be. But the “ProRelForUSA” movement has nothing to offer here except sound and fury. After years of online activism with nothing to show for it beyond rancor, the promotion and relegation campaign has proven itself to be a remarkably ineffective political movement
The use of social media in organizing for meaningful change has been unfairly derided over the past five years. Online organizing, while not without drawbacks, can be a force for good. In movements for racial and economic justice, social media has been a meaningful force when it comes to raising awareness and encouraging localized offline actions. In Guatemala, for instance, the protests that led to the ouster of strongman president Otto Pérez Molina began with a single Facebook post. While there’s never a guarantee that online protests will translate into real world results, the possibility is very much real.
#ProRelForUSA, on the other hand, is a textbook definition of “hashtag activism” as a pejorative. It is a mildly catchy moniker that does not imply any further political action. The likes of Ted Westervelt and Ben Fast treat the hashtag as an end unto itself. You tweet it and then do what, exactly? Neither activists offer much in the way of further concrete action. Like conjuring a genie or fairy godmother, the theory here seems to be that if you say the magic words often enough your dreams will come true.
However, in fairness to the promotion and relegation brigade, it is worth considering the inherent difficulty of their cause. A nation can only have one soccer federation that accredits leagues, and that federation contains relatively few board members. Moreover the election procedure is hardly wide open. A soccer federation by its very nature is not exactly vulnerable to populist uprisings. It is therefore hard to effect change—even in the long term.
To that end, the situation with the US Soccer Federation is not unlike the recent race for Chair of the Democratic National Committee, where party insiders and loyalists hold all voting power. It is, however, worth noting that leftist campaigners at least understand the importance of backing a candidate who can bring real change. A successful polity must target those persons who will have the final say.
By that standard, the promotion and relegation movement has no polity to speak of. Faced with difficult odds, it has decided to complain about the cosmic unfairness of life and do nothing more. In a system without plebiscites or other form of direct democracy, their claim that pro/rel is supported by most soccer fans is effectively meaningless. On some level, one suspects that someone who has spent as much time on this issue as Ted Westervelt knows as much. However, the temptation to claim the voice of the majority without having the obligation to ever produce results may be too hard to resist.
This strategy and worldview—lots of yelling without any real expectation of producing results—has, if anything, been too freeing. At this point, a non-negligible subset of the #ProRelForUSA group is rightfully known for piling on anyone who does not vocally agree with their tactics. Their targets tend to be employees of MLS or adjacent editorial shops. [Disclosure: I have occasionally covered matches for mlssoccer.com.] “I harass them because they’re paid-off mouthpieces for schlock,” pro/rel regular Chip Hughes tweeted this past Monday.
Yet Major League Soccer’s editorial staffers, while paid by MLS/SUM, are not Vichy-style collaborators, and American soccer is not a few Instagram posts away from pro/rel. Nevertheless, with the thinnest of justifications, the pro/rel gaggle will glom onto whomever it wishes, and its targets appear to be disproportionately female. The minimally satirical account @MLSonly, for instance, goes days on end resurfacing innocuous jokes made by women in soccer. Faced with questions of sexism in pro/rel campaigns on Twitter, Ted Westervelt can only accuse interlocutors of “[calling] me sexist for opposing monopolist control and anticompetitive behavior in American soccer.” Following this logic, opposing the monopolistic structure of American structure is basically a get out of jail free card for online harassment.
Yes, civility norms are often unfairly applied to political movements. Being nice is not actually a prerequisite for achieving change. Generating a sense of discomfort in opponents is sometimes necessary. In the case of promotion and relegation campaigners, however, these tactics are not part of some larger strategy. They are antisocial behaviors that are justified in the context of a political campaign. Since the #ProRelForUSA crowd is already convinced that it speaks for the majority, turning off potential allies in this way carries little cost. That strategy, however, is based on an underlying delusion. Instead of building a coalition based on shared interests, leading promotion and relegation campaigners have decided to pick fights with potential allies. This is politicking at its most ineffective.
Meanwhile, as the #ProRelForUSA campaign dithers, actual changes are happening in American soccer. At Stockade FC, Dennis Crowley is advocating for small experiments with promotion and relegation in regional semi-pro leagues. Crowley’s strategy is not guaranteed to succeed, but at least it is based on a theory of how change in US Soccer might be realistically achieved. A vibrant online community is one of American soccer’s greatest accomplishments, yet the promotion and relegation movement has squandered what might have been a major opportunity to achieve systemic change and pressure a staid structure.
Instead, the whole operation has descended into an endless stream pugnaciousness with only the thinnest and most circular of justifications. After Don Garber and Sunil Gulati, Ted Westervelt may be the biggest impediment to promotion and relegation in the United States.