Vaqueros sponsorship sets a clear divide

The Fort Worth Vaqueros held its annual jersey sponsorship lottery this week, controversially pulling the Fort Worth Police Officers Association out of the proverbial hat.

The eventual result was met equally with both surprise and a complete lack of it, but the overwhelming reaction from fans was negative in an increasingly complex time for Police relations.

“FWPOA has been a Vaqueros sponsor since day one and do great work in the community, through their community outreach programs like Cops For Kids,” said Vaqueros owner Michael Hitchcock. “More recently, FWPOA has sponsored our free youth academy to help provide opportunities for youth throughout Fort Worth.  We understand it’s a challenging time in this country and in our community.  The Vaqueros support Black Lives Matter and protesters, which includes many Vaqueros fans who have participated in Fort Worth protests.”

Relations across the nation between police departments and the public are increasingly waning. The murder of George Floyd added yet another name to the large number of black Americans unjustifiably killed by police. The COVID-19 outbreak further stoked the fire as medical workers were forced to improvise with trash bags and make single-use PPE last several days while policing budgets dwarf that of other essential services.

In Fort Worth particularly, the killing of Atatiana Jefferson in October of last year is still fresh in the minds of residents. The 28-year-old was shot through the bedroom window of her E. Allen Ave. home by Officer Aaron Dean. Dean was indicted for murder by a grand jury, but the city has a history of wrongful deaths and assaults towards members of Fort Worth’s black population.

Even closer to home was a photo that circulated from a peaceful protest that depicted a supporter in a Fort Worth Vaqueros jersey as police used tear gas to disperse protesters.

Nick Rainone, founder and president of the Vaqueros’ supporters group Panther City Hellfire, stepped down in protest after the FWPOA was announced as the jersey sponsor for 2020. Supporters groups from other clubs around the US rallied behind Rainone and the Hellfire.

“Fort Worth Police Officer’s Association has long been a sponsor and is in fact the primary sponsor of Vaqueros Field, the home of our amazing free youth academy,” said Rainone. “However, this kind of sponsorship is just a partnership like you would have with many sponsors, whereas the jersey sponsorship is a de facto presentation of a clear support by the club of the organization with that sponsorship. It makes the sponsor almost the “face” of the club, it’s what is front and center on any press or media covering the team, and this is where the real issue lies for me.”

Rainone highlighted the incidents that have tarnished Fort Worth Police Department’s relations with the city’s black residents, as well as incidents against its LGBT+ community.

It wasn’t just fans reacting negatively to the news as former El Salvador midfielder Alan Rovira seemingly opted to leave the team over the sponsorship.

The FWPOA has sponsored the Vaqueros since the club was founded in 2014. As Rainone mentions, the organization has contributed largely to the club’s free academy which generally allows a greater chance for children from minority backgrounds to play higher level soccer.

“We have a great relationship with Panther City Hellfire who are amazing supporters of the club and promoters of soccer in Fort Worth,” said Hitchcock. “We respect their opinions on soccer and our community and look forward to collaborating with our supporters on Vaqueros plans to see a positive change in our community. The soccer gods chose FWPOA for a reason and we plan to embrace this opportunity.”

These sponsorships can help to heal wounds when managed correctly, albeit on a small scale. The Fort Worth Police Officers Association operates the Cops For Kids charity which again targets minorities. While many Vaqueros fans have pledged to cover up the sponsors logo or boycott the 2020 jersey, perhaps the sponsorship would be better served to promote Cops 4 Kids or another charitable cause linked to the Fort Worth Police Officers Association than the association itself during such a strained time.

“Small clubs this absolutely depend on these sponsorships and I in no way mean to ask them to eliminate one of the few sources of funds,” said Rainone. “The last thing I would want is to call for actions that lead to the dissolution of the club over funding. That said I touch again on the way the front office seemingly did not see the potential issue with this partnership right now and believe that we could have held more discussions to address concerns. When we became aware of the real chance that FWPOA could be the shirt sponsor we requested an avenue to voice concern and they did allow us to email them, but it was in the last couple of days. An actual forum would have perhaps been appropriate considering the current national discussion.”

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