Lewis Morgan battles CF Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic for the ball during a match at Red Bull Arena on April 9 (Credit: New York Red Bulls)

The biggest takeaways from last weekend’s 2-1 loss to CF Montreal are going to come from the field. The New York Red Bulls’ second half collapse, including a major error by goalkeeper Carlos Coronel to let in the losing goal, are hard to overlook. Truthfully, that is the major story here. But Saturday is also notable for what wasn’t in Red Bull Arena.

The game against Montreal was also the team’s “Autism Acceptance Match”, the eighth time the team has had this type of event. As someone who has attended a number of these games it’s always been a standout date in a season full of promotions. It’s been low-key, yet substantial to the groups it represents. Both being endearing and impactful with what it helps accomplish.

That goal is to educate and help fund autism research. However, this particular iteration was different for a few notable reasons.

For the first time the Red Bulls did not part partner with the charity organization Autism Speaks for the event. Instead, the team partnered with Autism CAN with $3 going to the organization from the purchase of select tickets. In previous years, the Autism Speaks was a main presence both in the lead-up and at the games themselves. This included both physical presences, with tables and its name on special items, or with donations to the organization with select ticket purchases. 

In 2022 though Autism Speaks is no longer a partner. This isn’t just a case where the team and the charity failed to renew a contract. Speaks have been embroiled in controversy over the past few years. This has ranged from company methodology categorizing autism as a “disease” rather than a handicap (something that isn’t universally accepted in the community) to formally spreading the notion that certain vaccines can cause Autism. There’s also been concerns regarding how the group uses funds that it raises for autism research. 

In summary, the company isn’t viewed totally as holistic with the group New York is attempting to represent with the event. That led to changes with the 2022 event’s presentation that were very noticeable.

For starters, the name. In years past the game was known as the “Autism Awareness” night or match. On the surface this might seem small. But in truth, it feels like a positive step just by swapping two words that begin with the letter ‘A’. No longer is autism something people need to just be “aware” of. Being “aware” of something almost gives the inclination that it could be avoided. The month of April and World Autism Awareness Day aren’t just meant to make people “aware”. Instead, they’re purpose is to educate the general public. That’s something the word “acceptance” conveys far better as a title. It’s about integration into society and working with the community at large, not just being aware of them.

That also sort of correlates with the distancing of Autism Speak’s “disease” terminology. You don’t accept a disease. And the team should be praised for listening to the community and taking progressive steps forward. 

However, those changes and the few moments themes related to the namesake stand out because not much else was done with the event. It seems as though after the disassociation with Speaks, the Bulls were left without a theme for the theme night.

Some of this isn’t totally the team’s fault. Autism Speaks was the organization that introduced the ‘Light It Up Blue’ campaign during the 2010s. For that, famous landmarks would be illuminated a light blue to raise awareness for Autism. RBNY took this color palette to heart and used it to change match-day graphics and the color of the numbers worn by RBNY players. This also meant any promotional giveaways, whether they had Speaks’ name on it or not, were light blue. However, this was absent from last weekend and everything was still it’s traditional red color.

While AS doesn’t own the color light blue like other charities have done with color palettes (see Susan G Komen and the color pink during breast cancer awareness month), it is heavily associated with the group. The team’s lack of light blue paints another degree of separation between it and the organization.

The same can be said for the imagery of “puzzle pieces”. The image of a puzzle piece as a representation of Autism was made famous by Autism Speaks. In recent years, critics of it have claimed it’s become too related to the idea that people with autism don’t “fit in”, or that they are more of a “puzzle to be solved” rather than understood as a person. Once again, credit to the team for removing imagery that could be considered contentious.

But in removing both of these templates, the New York Red Bulls really didn’t do much to replace them. This even trickled down to the small scale accommodations. The 2021 version of the match was promoted in having the following initiatives, none of which returned last weekend:

  • “No music played at the BULLevard (fan activation area) from 3:00-4:00 p.m.; music will be lowered from 4:00 p.m. to the start of the match at 6:00 p.m.
  • Music volume and PA announcer will be lowered throughout the match
  • “Sensory Sacks” will be handed out to families impacted by Autism with items including noise canceling headphones, stress ball and wristband with their seating information”

Again, none of this was done at the arena last weekend. The BULLevard activities felt like any other game minus one extra table that seemingly was being run by Autism CAN. The music was and PA was still loud both outside and during the game. To RBNY’s credit, the quiet zones from years past did return and the sensory rooms have been a mainstay for a few a few seasons now. It’s just a shame that other, clearer parts of the festivities were absent.

To be clear, I’m not the target audience that benefits from this game. There could be plenty of people, directly affected by autism or not, who felt the game did enough to spread acceptance. Plus, in the end I don’t think slapping a logo on a piece of merchandise would suddenly make the event stand out more. The whole ceremony is supposed to be about more than that.

However, it does stand out a little bit – in almost makes the game feel like an afterthought. Hopefully, the team can continue to have educational discussions with advocates and groups like Autism CAN in order to cultivate the event again. Move away from events or tactics associated with Autism Speaks while creating more things of their own. More symbols that speak to the message of acceptance.

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