This article is written by Ed Hooper (@DynamoEd) for the inaugural American Soccer United Women’s Soccer Month #WoSoMonth. He will soon have his own monthly column to discuss similar issues.
The noise of the first weekend of Major League Soccer and the US women’s soccer team game against England’s women drowned out the noise of the US Soccer Federation annual meeting in Hawaii. This meeting is for the leaders of the national soccer apparatus to shape and address the needs of the soccer nation in America. But a controversial policy added to the bylaws of soccer addressing the national anthem stood out. The measure states: “All persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of the national anthem at any event where the Federation is represented.”
Translation: Don’t be USWNT player Meagan Rapinoe.
Don’t do what she is doing (kneeling in solidarity with National Football League Quarterback Colin Kaepernick), which is addressing the issue of police brutality towards African-Americans and people of color, because it will not be tolerated anymore. Instead of sitting down with Rapinoe and talking about why she is kneeling and find ways in which the Federation and Rapinoe could do something that unites the parties to express concern about this national issue they instead hid behind a measure to quell the voices fanning the flames of patriotism
While reading this new bylaw I thought of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in his World Wrestling Entertainment days. He had many phrases, but none stood out more than, “know your role and shut our mouth!” In essence, the USSF decided to quietly stay away from the spotlight with a whisper in hopes of silencing the outcry. I believe it only exposes grave and troubling issues.
To Meagan Rapinoe, the message that’s being broadcasted by the USSF is to fall into line or you will never wear the colors again.
Rapinoe is a gifted player and one of the athletes that helped bring a World Cup medal to the United States with her passion and amazing play on the pitch. Off the pitch, she is passionate about her beliefs and her life. She represents the LGBTQ community proudly and is a role model for women of all ages. Passing this measure tells her that her voice is not needed on any issues. Do it elsewhere, but the playing field is not the place for it.
It tells her that no matter how good of a player she is, the sport of soccer will not be seen going against what people expect from the USSF brand. But it also tells the other women and men who represent the USA that an issue concerning the nation which they feel strongly about is not to be commented on in the playing field before, during or after a match. The Federation only wants them to play soccer.
As for Kaepernick, he no longer plays for the San Francisco 49ers. He opted out of his contract and is now a free agent. A few teams look to pick him up and add him to their roster, but they stipulate that he stands during the National Anthem in any future games. He has since agreed to stand.
It sends a chilling message to all athletes regardless of their sport. If concerns and worries about the nation push them to want to use their position to address such grievances, they now know to keep it to themselves rather than use the field of play as a platform to address bigger issues. Some would say this is a case of nationalism vs. patriotism. I believe that no matter what some athletes like basketball great Charles Barkley say about being a role model (“I am not a role model!”), athletes are role models. Kids want to be them someday; and adults wish they were them now. To say athletes’ thoughts and opinions don’t matter and that they don’t have a platform to express their viewpoint is foolish. They are able to talk about anything else, but executives don’t want athletes bringing up issues like sexual assault, racism, equal pay and treatment, etc., while in uniform. Addressing such issues while wearing the national colors is unpatriotic.
If the Federation thought passing such a measure would protect the shield, they have another thing coming. It will damage the shield and its image. Such a measure shows that the Federation is more worried about the image of patriotism than the exercising of it. It shows that it is worried about looking the part of being an American brand, with the flags and rockets, but not being a force for good policy in and out of the stands. Its refusal to address the actual issue in a way that would strengthen and support the process of a healthy debate are now dashed because they appear to condone such a person to kneel and “look” disrespectful towards the colors.
Our nation didn’t crumble because athletes of the present decided to kneel in solidarity with the victims and their families. It didn’t crumble back in 1968 either during the Olympic games in Mexico because two African-American track stars representing the US Track team decided to use their victory during the national anthem to highlight the racial divide and unrest in their homeland. Our nation didn’t crumble when Muhammad Ali decided not to take part in the draft because he strongly disagreed with the Vietnam War. Why, then, do we think that taking a knee during the national anthem in support of Americans who can’t speak for themselves would make our nation and sport crumble now?
It’s not to say Tommy Smith and John Carlos didn’t face backlash from their nation for their stance on the winner’s platform. It didn’t mean that the white Australian athlete who came in second, Peter Norman, didn’t face any backlash from his nation either. But the cause was worth the risk because sometimes sports can shed light on the world outside the arena.
Few have taken the time to find out the symbolism behind their protest and how what they wore meticulously highlighted aspects of the troubles in America for African-Americans. When the American athletes received their Olympic medals they wore no shoes but black socks to represent black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf to represent black pride. Carlos had the tracksuit he wore unzipped to show solidarity to blue collar workers and a necklace of beads to represent those who were lynched or killed. All three wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badges. When Australian Norman suggested wearing the black leather gloves, he showed that he sympathized with their cause and their right to protest. They faced backlash from their respective countries, but making their point at one of the biggest stages in sport was important enough to take the risk. Athletes they were, but they were also citizens of their respective nations carrying the concerns and problems with them. Turning off their concerns was not even possible.
Stopping athletes from speaking out about the atrocities and actions happening off the field, in the stands, and away from the stadiums chills free speech and reduces athletes to the role of video game characters. They play, they score, and then you turn them off never to hear from them again until the next time you want them to win the game. Real life is not a video game. Real life has issues and concerns that need to be confronted.
The shield of the USSF is tarnished by this move to limit players’ abilities to protest. A chance to address the chinks in the armor is silenced while the shield is smoothed over to give the appearance of strength, but in reality, no strength is shown at all.
It is unclear what Rapinoe will do with this new bylaw in place, but I hope she doesn’t stop using her platform in defiance of the Federation to stress the needs to use sport as a way to force the issue home to the fan. I hope she is not silenced by this measure because she and others like her need to speak their mind without fear of reprisal or retribution. My hope is she, and the soccer fans who support her right to protest, will find creative ways of highlighting the matter regardless of bylaws or push back.