There’s often an imaginary line drawn between the worlds of sports and politics. Although there’s a rich history of the two overlapping, like United States Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos black-gloved Black Power salute of the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics or more recently the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream supporting an opposing candidate of its own team owner in a key congressional race, its often met with emphatic “stick to sports” responses.
In Central Ohio, that line is blurrier in the soccer community now more than ever.
On Wednesday, Sept. 21, a group of Columbus Crew supporters will host a pair of events – a fundraiser and a protest. On the fundraiser side, a low-key meetup in Franklinton, within walking distance of Downtown Columbus, where people can register to vote and donate to U.S. Senate candidate Tim Ryan. The protest takes place 1.7 miles away at an opposing fundraiser for another Senate candidate, JD Vance.
The line isn’t a group of like-minded supporters coming together to support and protest causes in which they believe or don’t believe. It’s the fact that Crew investor operators Dee Haslam, Jimmy Haslam and Dr. Pete Edwards host the opposing fundraiser.
Post-Save The Crew struggles
Every Oct. 12, Crew supporters celebrate “Saved the Crew Day.” It’s the anniversary of when former investor operator Anthony Precourt’s attempted relocation of the Black & Gold to Austin, Texas failed. Soon after the original Oct. 12, 2018 saving, ownership changed to the Haslam and Edwards families, who came out showing the commitment to the city with what’s now known as Lower.com Field and a 2020 MLS Cup victory.
On May 10, 2021, the relationship began to strain. That’s when the team announced a new logo and name change to Columbus SC, even after supporters shared a lengthy report to the club outlining all the reasons the rebrand was a bad idea. It only took eight days before the Crew front office walked back the name change, but the logo remained.
Following the attempted rebrand, there have been some smaller, non-sport-related spats. Whether it’s a Haslam family member agitating Crew supporters about the unpopular new logo or supporters struggling to bring back tailgate traditions from the parking lot of Historic Crew Stadium, the discourse stayed mostly online and moved on with the next news cycle. That was until May of 2022.
On May 3, 2022, a rare leak came from the halls of the United States Supreme Court. In it, the longstanding Roe v. Wade landmark decision allowing citizens to decide if they get an abortion in the United States was nearing an overturn.
Over the next month and a half, some politicians, businesses and sports teams alike shared statements against the eventual overturn. Absent from that group was the Columbus Crew. On June 25, three days before the Roe decision was officially dismissed, the Black & Gold and Real Salt Lake played to a 0-0 draw. During that match, Crew supporters found out that the Haslams and Edwards wouldn’t be one of those teams voicing their displeasure with the decision.
Team ownership told the Nordecke that due to the political nature of the decision, they wouldn’t share a message either way.
In response, Crew supporters created a message of their own. With team approval, the Nordecke had a lone “We Dissent” banner in the stadium’s supporters’ section, supporters wore pink and no Nordecke-organized songs or chants were done during a match.
It was the first and last time the banner was allowed to fly in an MLS stadium. In Chicago, against the Fire six days later, the same banner was disallowed and isn’t approved for future Crew events.
On the doorstep of the final full month of the MLS regular season, on Aug. 31, the silence, and avoiding politics, reared back into supporter discourse in a big way. That’s when the Edwards and Haslam-run Vance fundraiser went public.
Morgan Hughes, Crew supporter and one of many in the Save The Crew movement’s leadership group, doesn’t see the Edwards-Haslam fundraiser for Vance as the start of the upcoming fundraiser and protest.
“The fight against rising authoritarianism, I don’t think you can say it had a genesis moment,” said Morgan, who’s also part of a small group of people putting on Wednesday’s event. “I think it goes back to the rising anger of we, the working class.”
It might not have started Hughes and fellow supporters’ political beliefs, but it is a motivating factor with the supporter-led fundraiser happening on the same day.
Hughes has followed the Crew since their inception, has done podcasts about the team, regularly attends matches and has relationships with team employees, including Dr. Edwards. When the team’s move was threatened, he became the spokesperson for the Save The Crew leadership team.
From the outside looking in, he and his fellow supporters putting on Wednesday’s fundraiser give the appearance that nothing the Crew’s ownership does is acceptable, but that’s far from the case.
“Believe me, it doesn’t give me great feelings of joy to be in another ‘us vs them’ scenario with Crew ownership. I didn’t seek this out. I don’t want it,” said Hughes. “I’m a husband, a father, a friend, a citizen and all of those things are best experienced during peacetime but we have ownership of our team funding political candidates that would make our community more dangerous and our lives worse.”
Wednesday’s event itself won’t be like the Save The Crew movement. There aren’t businesses supporting it, there isn’t a global audience reach and there aren’t marquee speakers at the fundraiser. Instead, Hughes and others will help people register to vote and give attendees the opportunity to hang out together and donate to the Ryan Senate campaign.
Hughes said over 130 people volunteered to work the event, which to him is about 130 more than needed. Due to campaign finance laws, no one at the fundraiser is directly taking money. Instead, there will be a laptop or tablet set up for people to donate directly through the campaign donation portal, which helps keep political donations compliant.
Also, Ryan will not be present and it is not a political rally. When the group spoke with the Ryan campaign, their hope was to keep everything legal and know what they could and could not do.
At the event, the group wants people to come together and enjoy each other’s company, almost like a Crew match itself. In place of coming together in hopes of watching a team win, they want to build momentum for midterm elections that often face lower voter turnout.
On the protest side taking place at the Athletic Club of Columbus, organizers encourage fans to bring signs and wear their black and gold. With that said, it’s not just an event for soccer fans. Hughes and organizers hope to get people regardless of sports fandom to come together and represent the working class.
Overall, the event is attracting attention, even from former Black & Gold captain Michael Parkhurst.
After retirement from professional soccer, Parkhurst did what a good amount of former Columbus pro athletes have done – he stayed. In three seasons with the Crew, Parkhurst made 100 appearances, starting 99, most while wearing the captain’s armband. Throughout his extensive playing career, the center back was known for his toughness and quieter demeanor. In a steady 14-year career, there was one thing missing.
“I will view myself for a long time as somebody who will say, ‘Oh, I’m not into politics,’ and I think I’ve learned a little bit that I felt that way likely because I was on the privileged side of things,” Parkhurst told Massive Report. “Most political views did not affect me, thus I did not really pay attention. But I think in this day and age, it’s impossible to not be political because things have become so divided.”
After Hughes announced the event on Twitter, Parkhurst replied that he would attend, something outside of his character for the former player. He admits he’s not someone who goes online and does that often but says he’s all onboard for the fundraiser.
Another thing Parkhurt is willing to admit is how difficult taking a stance like this can be for professional players. Looking back, he wished that he was more outspoken like Philadelphia Union star Alejandro Bedoya, but knows that not all professionals have the same liberty.
“We don’t have jobs and can’t do what we do without fans, ownership included,” said Parkhurst, adding that players near the fringe could lose current and future contracts if they speak out against an owner. “Sometimes it’s just easier to be quiet and think, ‘My voice isn’t that important anyways, so I’m going to look out for myself.’ And I get that and I was probably more like that throughout most of my career as well.”
Parkhurst believes that people are past the time of supporting something quietly, which means doing it in a positive way to support what he believes in, not as a means to attack an owner or somebody else.
With that said, he still understands that not everybody has the freedom to share their thoughts without consequences, especially when they go against their boss. So, as a former athlete who’s interacted with Crew supporters for years, he knows that some players will see this event in a different light.
“I think it’s awesome when fans come together and they have a voice and they’re using it,” said Parkhurst. “When players see that, they know that they have a fan base that’s in tune with what’s going on in the world. Everyone knows the Crew supporters can rally together for a cause and come together and be strong and I think that’s a great message.”
Massive Report reached out to the Crew, who declined to provide a statement about the supporter event. For Hughes, a part of the pain caused through the silence of the Roe decision and subsequent Vance fundraising is what the team’s already said since buying the club.
Columbus, like many teams in MLS and across the world of sports, leverage the community in team messaging. In 2020, the Crew used the Twitter hashtag “#To96ther,” investor operators have used the title “stewards” when talking about their connection to the club and doing work throughout the community. For Hughes, fundraising for a person who he doesn’t believe follows the same principles is an underlying source of frustration.
“I’m sick and tired and done with the accepted ability of the rich and powerful to say one thing with their mouth, another with their LLC and another with their money,” said Hughes. “I think that the worst thing that can happen is when people’s walk doesn’t line up with their talk. Especially when their talk is lofty and it uses words like community and forward.”
While overturning Roe v. Wade angered many across the country, which Hughes uses as an example of authoritarianism that Vance supports, there are other views of Vance that hit him deeply. Included is the opioid crisis in Ohio.
On Aug. 18, two weeks before the Haslam and Edwards fundraising event went live, the Associated Press published an investigative report about Vance and an anti-drug charity he created. In the report, an addiction specialist was sent to Southeast Ohio’s Appalachian region, but the specialist was connected to the same company, Purdue Pharma, who has been found guilty of contributing to the crisis itself.
Hughes, whose younger brother Will died of an opioid overdose, sees Wednesday’s Vance fundraiser as a betrayal of not only team stewards but from someone he cared about deeply, Dr. Edwards.
“I love Pete Edwards, I went through Save The Crew with him. I have three saved voicemails on my phone. One of them is from Pete Edwards,” said Hughes. “I love that guy. But his recent public support of JD Vance changes that. It changes it because he’s using his money to make the people I care about more in danger of losing their lives and that’s not okay.
“I cannot sit by and be polite. I believed the Columbus Crew when they said they were about the community and it's disappointing to find out that they aren’t.”
The line between sports and politics is imaginary because ultimately it doesn’t exist for many. When it does, it’s used as a means to separate two things that have the ability to embolden a person. In 2022, cheering for a team is near the same level as cheering for a politician. If you drive around a neighborhood, even outside of election cycles, people are keeping up signs and flags for their favorite candidates like they would a team flag.
In situations where people are aligning with a certain person or politician, Hughes remembers the advice he received from his grandmother when he was in third grade.
“She said, ‘The company you keep, whatever they do and they stand for, if you don’t walk away from their horrid behavior, you are taking it on as your own. Why would you surround yourself with something like that unless you approve of it?’” said Hughes paraphrasing his grandmother.
It’s that wisdom that Hughes has carried with him through getting married, having kids and being a citizen of his community.
“If they give money to someone who spends their time trying to make my life worse, I look at it as them trying to make my life worse,” said Hughes. “I’m tired of living in a world where we’re just so polite to people who want our lives to be worse.”