In thirty or fifty or a hundred years, when some enterprising soccer journalist looks back at USL’s Charlotte Independence in the period from 2020 to 2021, they will likely struggle to conceive of how things all came apart so dramatically. How a wealthy owner with a stable club and a fierce supporters group; in a growing league and with a strong local appetite for soccer; somehow destroyed it all.
Perhaps this article is an attempt to give our future journalist some near-term reflection that may aid her or his exploration. Or perhaps this article is a cautionary tale to future clubs and owners about the path to ruin which one should not flirt with. Or maybe this is really an op-ed piece directed at the honchos at USL, pleading for an intervention to somehow save the Independence, a once promising club that now lies in ruin.
The main problems started for the Independence with a series of deeply offensive tweets sent by majority shareholder Dan DiMicco in the summer of 2020. That moment was, of course, the perfect toxic mix of three volatile ingredients at once in America – the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed the murder of George Floyd by police; the ongoing campaign for Donald Trump’s reelection as president; and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and America’s dramatic mishandling of it. DiMicco’s public take on all of those things would prove to be so foul; so offensive; that it destroyed many fans abilities to support their team.
But before we dig into the central moment of the crisis, a bit of the backstory on the USL team of Charlotte North Carolina.
The Charlotte Independence came into existence in 2014 and began play in USL at the start of the 2015 season after purchasing the rights from the Charlotte Eagles, a club that could no longer make a go at in in the then-third-tier* of American soccer. That year was something of a ‘land rush’ for USL teams, as the combination of a strong economy and the continued steady growth and popularity of soccer in the United States lead the league to expand from 14 teams the year before to 24 teams in 2015. For the uninitiated, USL is America’s topsy-turvey league – a league where a club is just as likely to relocate, rebrand, demote itself to a smaller league or fold altogether as it is to either gain promotion to top-tier MLS or just stand-pat and stay happily and comfortably within the confines of USL. Prolonged stability for teams in the US second-tier and third-tier of soccer is exceedingly rare. Of the 30 teams that were in USL in 1999, 25 no longer exist; 2 are now MLS teams; and just 3 clubs remain in the USL – Charleston Battery, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, and Richmond Kickers. For comparison, in England, there are more than 70 football clubs that have celebrated a full centennial or more in existence.
The Independence began modestly. Their original ownership group, led by Jim McPhillamy, played in in the kind-of humble local suburban soccer multiplexes (Ramblewood in 2015-16, and Matthews Sportsplex from 2017-2020) where you would find seasoned semi-pros on one field and U4 rec soccer not far away on the same day. Not surprisingly, attendance was equally modest – the Independence have consistently averaged between 1,500 and 1,800 fans per game since their inception, putting them well-below-average in a USL where the top teams typical draw 10 to 12,000 fans and even the league’s more-average clubs pull 4,000 to 5,000 on a given match day.
On the field, they found success relatively quickly, and in 2016 and 2017 Charlotte put together winning seasons which culminated in playoff appearances. And progress for the future was steady, as Charlotte made arrangements with Mecklenberg County to renovate and move into American Legion Memorial Stadium, a much more centrally-located facility. A move to a close-to-downtown facility coupled with the assembly of a winning team might ultimately result in the Independence becoming a financially viable product with a bright future in the US’ 22nd largest metropolitan area.
In 2018, McPhillamy and the ownership groups added the former CEO of Nucor Steel, Dan DiMicco, as the majority owner of the Independence. After his retirement from Nucor, DiMicco had been consulting and advising various corporate and political types. Beginning in 2016, DiMicco had served as a trade adviser and compadre to Donald Trump, and although that might in and of itself sent off alarm bells for some, in general, his public comments before 2020 could be categorized as politically conservative but not offensive in nature. There was only a mild indication that DiMicco might ultimately become controversial or divisive, much like his friend and Tweeter-in-Chief, Donald Trump. An op-ed by Ian Foster written at the time of DiMicco’s purchase of the team framed it this way:
“So should Independence fans be worried about their new big-money owner…? The short answer: probably not. DiMicco’s tweets are mostly harmless. His timeline consists mostly of re-tweets, and while people generally re-tweet things they agree with, one should be careful to conflate those with endorsements. Of his actual constructed tweets, a vast majority of them focus on issues of fiscal conservatism.”**
It seemed likely that DiMicco might continue along in this manner indefinitely – disagreeable, but not horrible – for the foreseeable future. Instead, things went a different way.
On May 25th, 2020, the world was shocked by footage from a cellphone of a Minneapolis police officer restraining, kneeling upon, and choking George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds as the man begged and pleaded that he could not breathe. When Officer Derek Chauvin finally released Floyd, he was dead. He was 46 years old. The crime he had been accused of was passing a fake $20 to a cashier at a grocery store.
The reaction was immediate, and swiftly spread around the US and eventually around the world; George Floyd protests occurred in France and South Africa and Southeast Asia as minority groups with a history as the targets of oppression and violence from police marched to express the belief that police brutality was real and it can longer be tolerated. While most Americans saw the murder as the result of long-existent systemic racism and police malfeasance, a small cadre of hard-core Trump supporters maintained the position that police should be ‘allowed to do their jobs’ and that the protests were largely illegitimate. Black athletes in all the major sports took the death of George Floyd hard, and used their visibility to call dramatic attention to the vast disparity between policing of blacks and policing of whites in the US.
When some of the protests inevitably turned violent, right-wing politicians and pundits warned the public, falsely, that Antifa was organizing as part of an effort to overthrow the US government. The Antifa claim was joined by two other false conspiracy theories: that Jewish billionaire George Soros and the Chinese government were secretly plotting all of this in an effort to destroy America. Independence owner Dan DiMicco not only believed these fanatical lies – he spread them. In since deleted tweets, DiMicco posted the following on May 30th***:
While Black leaders across America were asking questions about policing and racial inequality, and while citizens white and black were marching to call attention to those issue, DiMicco went on a week-long, unhinged twitter rant, blaming the protests on George Soros, Antifa, and China. From May 25 to June 1, DiMicco tweeted ‘antifa’, ‘#antifaterrorists’ or ‘#antifadomesticterrorists no fewer than 14 times. He tweeted ‘#Soros’, ‘#Sorosriots’ and ‘#Sorosenemyofthepeople’ 8 times. In relation to either the protests, the Coronavirus, or both, he tweeted or re-tweeted the conspiratorial term ‘#CCP’ (Chinese Communist Party) 5 times. And in that mad week, he retweeted two separate QAnon-linked accounts.
DiMicco’s fanatical blithering in this particular week was offensive in many ways and to many groups. First, by belittling and discounting the protests as the work of crisis actors and opportunists, DiMicco ignored, excused, and even defended the root cause of the protests: that Black men and women were being beaten, choked, or shot to death by police without consequence. Second, by stating that the actual motivator behind the action was prominent Democratic donor George Soros, DiMicco was promulgating a centuries-old anti-semitic conspiracy theory – sometimes known as the ‘International Jew’ and echoing a hateful antisemitic fabrication called the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ – that had been used since the Middle Ages to justify expulsion, violence, torture, and genocide against Jews across the world. For good measure, there was a third type of offensive tweet from the same week – a re-tweet of alt-right website Breitbart attacking the Connecticut high school sports association for supporting the rights of transgender students to compete, thereby completing a jerk-wad trifecta of harming Blacks, Jews, and Trans folk all in a 72 hour period.
For context, the same hashtags and lies that DiMicco was tweeting out were spewing forth from QAnon, Three-Percenter, Neo-Nazi and Proud Boy accounts across the internet. DiMicco, knowingly or not, was aligning himself not with political conservatives, but with racists and bigots.
Reactions were swift.
Ben Goshorn, one of the leaders of Independence supporters group “Jack’s Militia”, told me “When I discovered Dan’s tweets on June 1st I was initially taken back. To see that the owner of the club I have supported for years spreading conspiracy theories about Black Lives Matter protests and down right hateful rhetoric was embarrassing.”
Chris Davis, another Independence supporter, tweeted the following a few weeks after DiMicco’s tweetstorm: “When DiMicco was announced as the majority owner, I excused it. Just figured he had different political views from me. Which would be fine, because I have friends & family with different political views and I love them. But those friends & family don’t tweet disinformation about COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement to thousands of followers. Turning a blind eye to this, as the club seems to be doing, is supporting it. So to me, contributing any money to a club with a majority owner who conducts himself this way is just morally wrong. I love this club, but until there are meaningful changes, PK & I will no longer be supporting the Charlotte Independence.”
And on June 29, soccer writer Colton Coreschi even called for DiMicco to sell the team. The outrage was mounting.
In the immediate aftermath of the controversy, Jack’s Militia put out a scathing statement directed both at DiMicco and the Independence at large. The Charlotte soccer team hadn’t directly been involved in DiMicco’s nasty conspiracies, but they also were one of the few sports organizations across the nation that hadn’t expressed anything about the murder of George Floyd or the BLM protests that his death had sparked. The statement read, in part “Wild conspiracy theories and demonization of the free press as a distraction from the real problems facing the nation is not the answer. Black lives matter. Enough is enough.”
Hugh Roberts, a defender for Charlotte who is Black, expressed his frustration in an interview with the Charlotte Post, saying: “Fans are starting to pay attention to the things [DiMicco] is favoriting and liking. The fact that [the rest of the organization] is turning a blind eye to it yells volumes to players because we see these things, too. The fact that they’re not even saying that what he’s saying is separate from the beliefs of the team or the community is not right. It’s something that needs to change and needs to be addressed.”
While DiMicco was wreaking havoc with his internet opinions, the club itself was trying to match the moment with sentiments more in line with the feelings of supporters and players alike. On June 1, they tweeted a statement that included a plea to “stand against the systemic racial injustice that exists in our society today” – a sentence one could hardly imagine DiMicco composing.
The Independence, for their part, made great effort to highlight the feelings and opinions of their players regarding racial justice, including club leader and impromptu player spokesman Hugh Roberts. In June and July, Charlotte posted videos supporting Roberts work with a foundation to combat racism ; participated in ‘Blackout Tuesday’, a twitter-wide anti-racism protest; and even posted a thread of the entire team wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts on July 15. In big, all-caps-letters, the text of the first tweet reads ‘BLACK. LIVES. MATTER.’
Jack’s Militia expressed appreciation online for what the club – and particularly the players – were doing while also keeping the pressure on DiMicco himself. Ben Goshorn explains “I have to give a lot of credit to the most active members of Jack’s Militia. As the president of Jack’s Militia I felt it was necessary to condemn what Dan DiMicco was doing as well as support the players. The statement wouldn’t have happened without their support and efforts. The overall feeling was that this was a necessary decision to support the players and to say what was going on was wrong.”
“We had to act in an absence of the club publicly acknowledging that Black Lives Matter.”
But while the club and the supporters were headed in one direction, owner DiMicco was still spinning off wildly in another.
Contrary to logic, DiMicco did not stop after his ill-advised early June rant. Independence supporters began to watch his twitter feed closely, and he continued to spew garbage.
On June 2 he blamed Obama for racism and claimed that Soros, Antifa, and Communists were secret behind the BLM protests.
— JB (@jas_bai) June 2, 2020
On June 9 he tweeted the jingoistic and baseless conspiracy theory that China intentionally cooked up the Coronavirus in a lab and released it maliciously into the world.
— JB (@jas_bai) June 9, 2020
On June 18, he re-tweeted an anti-Chinese government tweet tinged with racial overtones.
— JB (@jas_bai) June 19, 2020
Goshorn contextualized what made the tweets so disturbing for him and other Charlotte fans this way: “What offended me the most was that he was so up front with his views. Days before that I was wondering why the club hadn’t put out any statement or acknowledged any of the social unrest. Whether directly correlated or not it showed me the true heart of the owner of the club I’ve loved for years.”
A month after that first barrage of tone-deaf public statements, DiMicco issued a statement on Charlotte Independence letterhead.
When the closest thing to an apology you can say is “it is unfortunate that some of my political position have perceived as discriminatory,” you have failed to do the listening and learning you claim to value. https://t.co/gnvmOFeaWb
— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) July 1, 2020
As USL journalist Jeff Rueter mentioned in the above tweet, it was far short of an apology.
And as time wore on, Charlotte supporters would find, contrary to expectation, that no major changes or great reckoning would ever come to pass for the Independence or owner Dan DiMicco.
Read Part two of ‘The Owner That Strangled his Own Club’ right here.
*: USL was the 3rd tier league in 2015, while the NASL was the 2nd tier league on the US Soccer pyramid and MLS was the top league. When NASL folded in 2017, USL slid up the food chain, although much of this tier designation moot, since every other country’s soccer pyramid includes the possibility that a team can win its way to promotion up the pyramid.
**: Spoiler alert- it would not turn out as Ian Foster had wished. I reached out to him to ask if he had thoughts on his upbeat op-ed from 2018. He did not mince words in his reply:
“I figured he (DiMicco) could turn out bad, I hoped he wouldn’t. He ended up worse than I imagined.” He also lamented the current situation for Charlotte fans by saying “I’m sure they’d love to support (the Independence) if it weren’t owned by one of the worst people to own an American sports team right now.”
***: DiMicco’s tweets have been deleted and his account locked since the summer of 2020. All the quotes are taken from a Charlotte Independence supporter that documented them on his website.