Why are some flags being banned in North American sports venues?

Fans hold Palestinian flags during a Belgian ProLeague soccer game in Brussels on Nov. 5. (Belga/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)
Fans hold Palestinian flags during a Belgian ProLeague soccer game in Brussels on Nov. 5. (Belga/AFP via Getty Images - image credit)

Toronto is known for being one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and Canada prides itself on the fact that so many communities live alongside each other. As part of that, they are able to enjoy mega sports events and celebrate those victories with flags, parades and much more.

When Milwaukee Bucks' Greek star Giannis Antetokounmpo comes to play in Toronto at the Scotiabank Arena, he ignites the pride of the Greek community. They come to the game with songs and flags and it's lovely.

The crowd at Scotiabank Arena is often a display of flags of different countries. I attended the Caribbean Night last year and saw flags from Jamaica, Grenada, St. Vincent, and so many other countries. Likewise, there are always a few German flags honouring the newest Toronto Raptor, Dennis Schröder, who hails from Germany. It's a nice reminder that those countries are present and included in the North American sports ecosystem.

Flags represent an identity, but right now they are a cause for concern in different communities, creating a bit of a collision  with sports fandom.

A few days after Hamas' horrific attack on Israel on Oct. 7, Major League Soccer implemented a temporary flag ban across the league — which applies to Toronto Football Club (TFC) and BMO field. The policy states that "flags representing a country or nationality at MLS matches" are not permitted.

Temporary ban

In the National Women's Soccer League, Angel City Football Club in Los Angeles also implemented a ban for their own venue.

So why were these bans implemented? And how long will they be in effect? Are they to prevent violence in the stands between supporters of the opposing sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

If so, the implication that anyone holding an Israeli flag or a Palestinian flag is violent is discriminatory and I take issue with that. I attended a pre-season Raptors game against the Washington Wizards on Oct. 20 and there was a fan in the 300-level seats waving an Israeli flag. They waved it for a bit then it was put away. Everyone continued watching the game. We live in a country where being able to fly a flag isn't a crime. Not yet, anyway.

At the Oct. 30 Raptors game against the Portland Trailblazers, there were two fans, Atifa and Zeini (CBC Sports has agreed not to use their last names for their personal safety), who waved a very large Palestinian flag during a time-out. They chose to wave it during a time-out so as to not block the view of the play from any spectators. Within two minutes, they said a security guard appeared and asked them to put the flag away. They did and continued to watch the game.

"All I did was put a flag up," Zeini told me. "I didn't say anything."

According to Zeini, who is originally from Gaza, a security guard later returned and told Zeini his flag was offending someone and he was asked to surrender it. He was told he would get it back after the game. He and Atifa (who is not Palestinian) refused and told security they would rather leave the venue. Zeini said a third security person then came and offered to escort them to their car — for the purpose of helping them re-enter the arena — to put the flag away and they agreed.

Form of erasure

"What if it was a Rainbow flag or a Ukraine flag?" Zeini asked me.

It begs the question why one particular flag is causing alarm? Or is the door being opened to filing complaints? What if a bigot says they are offended by a Rainbow flag? Being offended by someone's existence is a form of erasure of that person's identity. Is that truly what any teams and clubs want to do? Police the identities of fans?

I reached out to NWSL, Angel City, MLS and MLSE, which owns TFC, to get some clarification. I heard back only from MLSE.

I asked MLSE about its policy on flags, posters, tifos and banners, all of which are not permitted. I wanted to know more about the policy and which flags specifically were not allowed. I also wanted to see a written version of the policy that I could refer to.

"Fans have a right to expect an environment where they can enjoy the event experience free from fighting, thrown objects, attempts to enter the playing field, political or inciting messages, and disorderly behaviour, including foul, sexist, racial, obscene or abusive language or gestures," Dave Haggith, MLSE's VP of communications, wrote in an email.

"Fans can be asked to remove an item that might be offensive to other fans," Haggith said, adding the code of conduct applies to all MLSE venues.

The world is on fire in so many ways and there are certain flags that will upset people from nations that were previously in conflict. If we open the Pandora's Box of allowing complaints, it may seem as if there will never be a flag flown in Scotiabank Arena again.

What if someone complains about the Canadian flag? Does that mean it would be taken down?

Or are there exceptions to the policy? Both the American and Canadian flags fly at Scotiabank Arena for NBA and NHL games.

Sports intertwined with politics

While I appreciate the way in which teams have recognized pain, suffering and deaths, sports are and will always be intertwined with politics. Like many organizations, MLSE issued a statement about the attacks on Oct. 7th, but has yet to make any mention of the more than 10,000 Palestinians killed in the conflict, of whom more than 40 per cent are children.

It's one thing to wade into waters that may seem murky, but if you are in it you allow for difference of opinion, and let people fly their flags during a time-out and call it a day.

What is even more concerning to me is disallowing flags of a particular kind. We may not look for justice on the court, at the pitch or on the ice, but we have witnessed the way that sports can be a vehicle for discussions about injustice in society such as Black Lives Matter, women's reproductive rights, pay equity and more.

Restricting fans from peacefully bringing their identities to their sports experiences is not ideal. It's tantamount to telling one specific part of the sports community that some lives are not worth being recognized and telling them to "shut up and cheer," the way that shut up and dribble was used at athletes who were bringing social issues and justice to work with them.

Arena and stadiums have historically been a place of political dissent and resistance in the world. Rejecting that history and movement may not only be cruel and exclusionary, it might put us on the wrong side of history.

Perhaps, we need to look at global sports hero Nelson Mandela to look for some precedent. Or maybe that's offensive, too.