Mike Newell came to Tej Sahota with a question, shortly after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May.
What does Toronto FC mean to you?
It feels like a second home, Sahota replied.
“Both Mike and I, we agree on that,” Sahota says. “So why wouldn’t you work to better your second home?”
The deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake and more Black Americans at the hands of police have sparked a global reckoning over racial injustice. It made Newell think hard about the microaggressions he has suffered and witnessed over the years as a TFC fan at BMO Field: racist comments in several languages, extra scrutiny from stadium security and shouts about Black players that their white counterparts don’t face.
And so, the TFC BIPOC Fan Coalition was born.
In August, about 20 fans got together with a mission to act as a bridge between supporters who are Black, Indigenous or people of colour and the team’s front office, and to shed light on acts of racism during the game-day experience. With no fans at BMO Field this year because of the pandemic and the club playing home dates in Connecticut, the coalition is focusing its efforts on 2021.
“Everybody talks a lot about what happens in Europe and the overt acts (of racism related to soccer) that happen. But people always forget that for the one, two, three overt actions that happen in a stand, there are hundreds of mini microaggressions … a lot of people just aren’t aware of (them),” Newell says.
Newell has been a capo — a fan who leads the cheers and demonstrations in part of the crowd — at BMO Field’s south end, which supporters’ groups have called home for years. He faces away from the field much of the time during a match, which gives him a different perspective.
“The south end is very white,” Newell says. “I think that’s because a lot of BIPOC people are uncomfortable with the history of ultras, of supporters groups and racism.”
Sahota, a day one fan of the Reds, says the club’s motto, All For One, needs to include supporters. He says TFC crowds represent Toronto’s diversity better than any other team, but suggests some cultural changes need to be made.
“Sometimes that feels like something that Toronto FC loves to market and loves to hang their hat on, but they don’t do their part in understanding that there is some discomfort in there,” he says.
He mentions being subjected to security pat-downs at the front gates as other fans waltzed in, and says he has seen white fans move to better seats while BIPOC fans have been denied a better view. The times when he’s had front-row seats, Sahota recalls having his tickets checked repeatedly. He says he has also been asked if he’s in the right place when entering the stadium’s exclusive BMO Club.
“It’s little things like that. Eventually you don’t want to feel that uncomfortable going to what supposedly is your second home. It’s the day-to-day stuff, the little things that some non-Black or people of colour fans don’t see. I think TFC could improve there wholeheartedly,” he said.
“It’s a little like death by one thousand cuts.”
In a statement to the Star on Friday, Toronto FC said it has held productive preliminary discussions with the coalition and looks forward to continuing the dialogue: “We want to ensure that BMO Field remains a stadium that welcomes all fans. It is important that our organization is a leader as we look to make positive and lasting change in the areas of diversity, equality and inclusion.”
The coalition has support from TFC veteran Justin Morrow, who is also executive director of Major League Soccer’s Black Players Coalition, and says it’s encouraged by the team’s response so far.
Some of the first steps the coalition hopes to take will require club support: BIPOC cultural nights specific to the Canadian experience, and an awareness video explaining the motivation for taking a knee during the national anthem, sometimes misinterpreted as unpatriotic.
Also high on the list is an update of the BMO Field fan code of conduct in time for the 2021 season, with a focus on racism and sexism.
“Let’s not just say, ‘Racism’s bad, sexism’s bad,’” Newell says. “Spell it out and make tangible, actionable (consequences) when these things do happen. It gives people who are around them who are experiencing things or seeing it happen … the tools and the power to report or do something about it.”
Sahota hopes the coalition’s work leads to a more friendly, inclusive environment when the Reds resume playing on home turf, and for years to come.
“I hope that when my seven-year-old becomes a full-fledged fan and is buying tickets on his own, that he never has any of these experiences to deal with,” he says.
Newell debunks the idea that fans who buy a ticket can do and say whatever they want on game day. He has seen other sports organizations push for social change and says Toronto FC, as a community hub, can also become a leader.
“I’m not saying football fixes all, that’s obviously not the case,” he says. “But it’s a vehicle to start those conversations, to take a moment and think.”