TUKWILA, Wash. — It’s an exceptionally rare occurrence that a member of the Seattle Sounders non-technical staff will address the media. Over the last 10 years, at least, it’s maybe happened a few times.
Friday was one of those times. With majority owner Adrian Hanauer out of the country, Sounders VP of Business Operations Taylor Graham was left to apologize for some of the phrasing in the team’s letter to ECS that explained the decision to ban the Iron Front flag from the stadium.
“There was some language which put the Iron Front in the same sentence, the same breath, with a couple other organizations like Proud Boys,” said Graham, who serves as the Sounders supporter liaison. “That was not fair. There were a lot of individuals that were extremely hurt by that. The fact that you could put different organizations that are fighting for different values in the same breath was not the club they believe they stand with and fight with. I know I’ve had conversations with supporters and fans and media and staff, there have been staff that have sat with me to talk through this issue. We have to be accountable for our words.
“For that, first and foremost, I want to put our hand up and say that’s not fair and that we apologize for those words and putting them in that context. That is not what we stand for nor is it what our supporter groups stand for. We have to be accountable for that.”
While Graham may seem an odd choice to deliver the message at first, there might not be anyone in the organization better positioned to speak on the issue. Aside from working closely with the various supporters groups and the Alliance Council, Graham is a former Sounders player during both the USL and MLS eras. He’s known many of these fans for well over a decade and understands the emotions they feel on gameday.
Throughout his nearly 25-minute session with reporters, Graham displayed a sense of nuance and understanding of the situation at hand. While the league office has seemingly dismissed supporters’ pleas to give more than a cursory look at what the Iron Front flag stands for, Graham said he did his own research.
“I spent a lot of time this week reading about this and becoming more educated,” he said. “Sitting down with the supporters and hearing what it means to them, those values are very much aligned. That symbol is a symbol of inclusion. That symbol is a symbol standing opposed to hatred. But it is also to some degree been co-opted by groups using it for divisiveness and violence at times. That is fundamentally opposed to the Sounders’ values. We respect the fact that currently the MLS fan code of conduct says the Iron Front logo is not allowed in CenturyLink Field or other MLS venues but we are constantly in dialogue with ECS, other supporter groups and Alliance Council to find ways to continue to push forward our values and our values are very much aligned.”
Rather than be discouraged or frustrated by spending a large chunk of time and energy over the past two weeks on this issue, Graham insisted he came away reinvigorated about the direction the conversation was going.
He said he’s aware of the planned protest, but expressed no misgivings or concerns. Rather, he seemed confident that it could lead to a positive outcome.
“We’re a club that talks through every scenario,” he said when asked about planning. “I remain completely optimistic and reassured that we’re saying the same things. What’s important is that we’re saying the same things and finding the right ways to say it. That gives me a sense of comfort that we’re going to be able to push forward on this together and not let this divide us.”
As to the meat of the planned protest — convincing MLS to change its stance on the Iron Front symbol and to remove “political” from the fan code of conduct — Graham indicated the Sounders are open minded and that he believes MLS is at least willing to listen, even if some of Don Garber’s recent comments suggest otherwise.
Graham pointed out that the Sounders and Timbers, in particular, fought for a high degree of local discretion when it comes to statements of value in the stands.
“Relationships are built on constant communication and we’re working on this at the local level and with MLS,” Graham said. “The word relationship is in a sense the most important thing. The Sounders family is an ecosystem of so many moving parts and these parts are constantly evolving with the local social climate and what’s going on and what’s relevant in our local markets. To say that anything is just defined and not moving is not necessarily fair.”
Graham also acknowledged that fans on both sides of the issue have expressed concerns and that many of them have threatened to cancel season tickets. He seemed to take that possibility in stride, reiterating that the point of addressing the media in such a public way was to be as clear as possible as to where the Sounders stand as an organization.
“It’s been tough to hear fans say ‘hey this seems like a pivot from what we’ve heard from the club in previous years,’” he said. “The purpose of today is to communicate directly with those individuals and reassure them that this is a club that still believes in equality that still believes in inclusion and a club that stands against hatred. We are constantly searching for new and creative ways to celebrate these values. Ultimately it’s up to them if they want to be part of this. We want to have everybody. That’s the message, we are stronger together. The more diverse we are, the more varying viewpoints we have, the more conversations we have to bring out these different truths is only going to make us stronger.”