- Jason Davis

I got my hands on a copy of the GQ UK featuring a story on the Sons of Ben. The story merits comment because it portrays an accurate if somewhat harsh picture of the group, and to an extent, the larger North American supporters group movement. Whether that also means it's unflattering is in the eye of the beholder.

Writer Andrew Hanksinson's tone might best be termed as "amused." Throughout the story, in which he relates his experience attending a Union match at PPL Park and traveling to Columbus with a few members of the Sons of Ben, Hankinson takes shot after shot at the group and its attempts at ultra-style support. Hankinson sets up a juxtaposition of what the Sons of Ben (and by implied extension, all American groups) appear to be and what they actually are, being careful to allow the words and actions of those members featured to make the point for him.

Americans, he tells GQ UK's football savvy readers over the course of a few pages, are poseurs.

He's right to a point of course, and while his coloring of Americans as fat, uncouth, and naive is mean-spirited, that doesn't make the thrust of the piece entirely unfair. In incarnations of the new American supporter culture like the Sons of Ben, the poseur quotient is relatively high. Young American men have a proclivity for pretending to be things they're not.

What Hankinson misses - and without knowing his background I can't get guess at his experience so perhaps it's not completely his fault - is that the Sons of Ben aren't inauthentic. Instead, the group is representative of something new, a product of American sensibilities combined with a desire to emulate European support while avoiding all of the distasteful elements of firms and ultras. Acting like "hooligans", up to an including making empty threats and dressing like English skinheads, is pointless, but harmless. If the entirety of the Sons of Ben were wannabes, Hankinson's story would strike a much sharper chord. As it is, it smacks of the typical English attitude when it comes to anything American soccer. Compliment the enthusiasm while making fun of the execution.

There's no reason to go off on a rant about American soccer culture being too derivative of Europe and England specifically, but know that I'm struggling to restrain myself. That's why Hankinson's story hurts; insults and anti-American/patronizing tone aside, his point is valid in a narrow sense. On the ground and in its most committed form, American soccer support tends to boil down to groups of nerds in costumes, doing their damndest to recreate what they see on TV in places like England, Italy, and Germany. Soccer's appeal remains on a subcultural level in the US, making it a magnet for American sports fans who see football, baseball, etc. as either too mainstream for their liking or provincial for their tastes. Outside of the large Latin influence in places like DC, LA, Houston, etc., MLS clubs tend to have supporters groups who revel in Anglophilia. That makes them easy targets for English magazine writers looking to have a go at American soccer's simpleness.

There are exceptions, and not every group is made up entirely of nerds wishing they were English or poseurs playing hooligan. The American-ness of MLS supporters groups, that thing which makes their biggest battles with their clubs over lighting of a flare or smokebomb or the use of a curse or two, should be celebrated. Calling their passion flat because it doesn't involve a political stance or streak of violence isn't entirely wrong, but it is misleading. American sports have never involved coordinated violence or political protest in any real measure. When we started up our supporters groups, we had no frame of reference but what we saw on television or read about in books. Sure, that led to a few amusing names. So what.

I understand why Hankinson did his story on the Sons of Ben. Philly is the new kid on the American soccer block, and the supporters group deserves most of the credit for the getting them there in the first place. A streak of blue-collar English-style flavor runs through the SoBs in part because of the type of city Philadelphia happens to be. Telling their story makes sense.

But I wish Hankinson would also spend some time in DC with La Barra Brava or in Seattle with Sounders fans. There are poseurs in those groups too, God love them, but the difference in approach and style might hip the GQ writer to the fact that America is impossible to pigeonhole. We're coming around to this thing - organizing fans into groups for the purpose of supporting the team in a way that doesn't happen in any other American sport - very late. That means we have to take our cues from elsewhere, and that we'll be unduly influenced by the modern ability to see other cultures on TV.

Also, everyone, including Andrew Hankinson, needs to stop judging anything to do American soccer against its English equivalent. Not because the American version won't measure up, but because doing so means failing to appreciate just how different the sport is in the two countries and their respective cultures.

No matter a presence of a few poseurs or members who insist on avoiding the word "soccer", the Sons of Ben are not equatable with anything English. They are truly and totally American. That requires an adjustment of the standards by which they're judged, something in which Andrew Hankinson clearly wasn't interested.


I realize almost none of you have read the story, making all of this a bit like hearing one side of a telephone conversation. My apologies, and as soon as the story is available online (if it ever is), I'll add a link to complete the effect.


The article has finally arrived in an online form at the GQ UK website, and there is now a response from the "skinhead in chinos" posted to MFUSA.
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