U.S. Soccer recently passed a policy that now requires all of its players to stand “respectfully” during the national anthems. It is the first American sports league or governing body to do so.
The policy is in response to Megan Rapinoe’s protest last September, in a match against the Netherlands, when she knelt during the national anthem as an act of solidarity with the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick.
It is especially important to note the nature of these protests — what they stood for and against. They were not against the United States as a country, its military, its flag, its people, its future, or its ideas. Rapinoe, Kaepernick, and the dozens of other athletes that have knelt in protest did not do so out of ungratefulness. They knelt, primarily, in protest of inequality, police brutality, and the various other injustices many Americans endure.
Rapinoe protested not from a dislike, but rather than from a love of her country, which she’s proven by her service to the team, with her philanthropic work with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education network, the Olympic Committee, Athlete Ally, and also through her protest. She loves her country so much that she wants it to be better.
U.S. Soccer, then, effectively added to its bylaws a policy that silences individual acts of compassion for its citizens and respect for its ideas.
When Rapinoe first took her protest from club games to the national scene, U.S. Soccer responded firmly against it:
"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."
It seems contradictory to ask players and coaches to “reflect upon the liberties and freedoms we all appreciate in this country” and then prohibit them from acting on that meditation. Rapinoe reflected on those liberties and freedoms that she appreciates and realized that there are many Americans who are stripped of those same rights that she enjoys, because of external and oppressive powers. The goal of reflection isn’t to delude with blind patriotism, to think all is well when it’s not, or to stand respectfully and accept privilege at face value. It’s to come to both a personal and worldly truth. To see things as they really are, and then to act on it.
It was impossible for Rapinoe to put up a pretense of the world at large when she’s experienced inequality herself, as a gay woman: “I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she said. Her protest wasn’t just a reasonable conclusion of reflection, but an affectionate one.
This then isn’t a matter of reflection or honor or privilege, those are just convenient sleights of hand — this is purely an issue of obedience. This is Rapinoe stepping out of line and sparking conversations about problems of human life in which U.S. Soccer would rather not be involved.
To be fair to them, the federation has every right to enact laws and policies that police the behavior of its players. It’s a governing agency that has a right to its delusion.
That they have that right, doesn’t change the fact that this newly passed policy is cowardly. It’s a heinous brand of cowardice, one that is especially hypocritical. One that asks players to represent a country which prides itself as the home of the brave, a country that lives on the idea of being morally upright, one that sees itself as a free land where all its people can and should be equal, and then seeks to mute its players for suggesting that the country isn’t living up to all of its promises and potential. It’s a shamefully unsurprising step for a federation that is purposely and frustratingly silent in the face of sporting activism: that is, they have gone from a consensual silence to mandated muzzling.
The United States is a country that retrospectively loves its agitators. A land that champions (after the fact, of course), people that identified injustice and stood against it even as the law and public opinion told them to desist. If Rapinoe is to fully represent this country, then she is obligated by its ideals and her life as a sufferer of its inequality and a lover of its humanity, to protest inequality. It’s the American thing to do. To silence that action is unAmerican. So either she’s wrong and the country has lived off falsehoods since its inception, and would rather not confront its imperfections, or this law by U.S. Soccer runs counter to everything that they supposedly represent.
Caroline Lamb once wrote that: “When men begin to speak of duty, they have ceased to love." To force players to “respectfully stand” and “reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country” is to either disregard or misunderstand that respect and love are hallmarks of protest. It’s to value obedience and meekness over true passion. To think that submission equals respect and love. It’s to put a false image of the sport’s product over the well-being of the people that it represents. Not even the NFL, whose media attempted to blame Kaepernick’s protest for its falling TV ratings, is that brazen and stupid.
There are times when breaking the law is more respectful to the country than adhering to it. When the law itself is blatantly unjust, and the crime is simply an act to arouse the conscience of the community. At that point, to honor the country is to stand against it.
U.S. Soccer enacted this policy without specifying resulting punishments and it doesn’t help that there’s no precedent in American sports for such punitive measures. How U.S. Soccer metes out discipline for future protests will be telling. One thing is certain, though: by seeking to remove its players' rights to peaceful protest, U.S. Soccer has thoroughly embarrassed itself and betrayed its own American ideals, far more than any protest.