On Thursday, Megan Rapinoe continued her protest during the national anthem to bring awareness to social justice issues in America. There was some talk that Rapinoe might not carry the protest over to United States women's national team games, or at least for Thursday's tribute to Heather O'Reilly in order to avoid taking attention away from her retiring teammate. But Rapinoe followed through on her promise to continue the protest even for national team matches.
U.S. Soccer was displeased. After the USWNT's match against Thailand concluded, the federation released this statement to ESPN and it was broadcast on air during the postgame show.
"Representing your country is a privilege and honor for any player or coach that is associated with U.S. Soccer's National Teams. Therefore, our national anthem has particular significance for U.S. Soccer. In front of national and often global audiences, the playing of our national anthem is an opportunity for our Men's and Women's National Team players and coaches to reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country. As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played."
U.S. Soccer is well within its rights to have a policy like this. The first amendment rights of Rapinoe and her teammates do not extend into their jobs and her employer can discipline her or terminate her employment if they feel she's brought their organization into disrepute. They might feel like they're in danger of losing revenue because of Rapinoe's protest and want to protect against that. Fine.
Having said that, the utter tone-deafness of this statement is incredible. Asking Rapinoe and everyone else to use the national anthem to "reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate" when she's been trying to bring awareness to the fact that all Americans don't enjoy the same freedoms is insensitive and a reflection of what Rapinoe's trying to say: that people in positions of privilege aren't listening to what oppressed people are saying about their experiences.
"I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties," Rapinoe, who is a lesbian, said after her initial protest in Chicago. Four days later, when the Washington Spirit played the national anthem early to prevent Rapinoe from protesting, she spoke out again about the issues she's trying to bring awareness to. "I think we need to have an open conversation about race relations in this country and what that means to both sides," she said in Maryland last week. "I think the conversation gets so mixed up, it's like what are we actually talking about? We're talking about Americans who have to deal with oppression and racism and poverty and with the intersectionality of all of that."
There's also something off about "as part of the privilege to represent your country." U.S. Soccer is not the military. It is not a government agency. It has no affiliation with the United States government. There's certainly nothing wrong with anyone -- fans, players or coaches -- seeing the national teams as a source of national pride and something that's worth being patriotic about, but it's absurd that USSF conflates representing them with representing the United States of America.
U.S. Soccer can set rules for its employees as it wishes, as long as it's not violating any labor laws, but we're not obligated to respect its reasoning. And in the case of this statement, its reasoning is flawed to the point that it borders on offensive.