Protests can spark meaningful U.S. Soccer change

It’s a good thing that the United States men’s and women’s national teams don’t have matches this June. If they did, the U.S. Soccer Federation’s requirement that its players stand for the national anthem — a rule adopted in 2017 after USWNT headliner Megan Rapinoe joined then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s silent, peaceful protest of injustice and inequality in America — surely would have been put to the test.

Like just about every sports organization in the country, U.S. Soccer sent out a statement amid coast-to-coast outrage over the shocking video of George Floyd being killed last week while in Minneapolis police custody. Most of the statements came across as deliberately vague platitudes designed not to offend paying customers, with the notable exception of the NBA’s Washington Wizards. The entirety of the USSF’s message was just three words long: “United Against Racism.

Here are three more words: “Talk Is Cheap.” If U.S. Soccer really wants to walk the walk, the first thing it ought to do is consider scrapping that anthem rule and allow its players to display their opposition to systemic racism and injustice whenever they damn well please. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if that means doing so while wearing the USA crest above their hearts on the global stage. 

There’s no doubt such a move would alienate a segment of the fan base. A significant portion of the U.S. population still believes, and some pretend to believe, that kneeling during the anthem is an act of disrespect.

Never mind the values that the flag is supposed to stand for. Or that Kaepernick began kneeling (as opposed to sitting) precisely as a show of respect upon the advice of a military member. Or that those same people don’t seem nearly as offended by unarmed black people being slaughtered on camera by someone whose salary is paid with their tax dollars. 

USWNT star Megan Rapinoe has kneeled during the national anthem the past few years. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Yet the debate surrounding the anthem has changed dramatically in the three years since USSF adopted its controversial stance. Much of that shift can be attributed to President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric on the issue. In late 2017, Trump called any NFL player who took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick a “son of a bitch.” More than 200 NFL players sat or knelt during the anthem days later.

American soccer players aren’t shy about tackling social inequalities. Men’s national team up-and-comer Weston McKennie wore a “Justice for George” armband Saturday during a Bundesliga match in Germany. McKennie and USMNT veteran Jozy Altidore are among those who have used their social media platforms to speak out on Floyd’s death. Members of the defending World Cup champion USWNT, including star attackers Alex Morgan and Rose Lavelle, have also expressed their disgust. (The former police officer responsible has been charged with third-degree murder.)

“The playing of our national anthem is an opportunity for our men’s and women’s national team players to reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country,” U.S. Soccer said when it announced that players would be expected to stand during the ceremony going forward. 

Floyd’s death, as well as those of unarmed black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and Kentucky EMT Breonna Taylor in recent months have served as a sobering reminder that that those liberties and freedoms are not enjoyed equally by all Americans, especially those who happen to have been born with a slightly darker skin tone.

Like the country, U.S. Soccer has also changed over the last three years. Led by president and ex-USWNT standout Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO Will Wilson, an entirely new leadership group is in place. Reverting to an agnostic anthem policy would make a bold statement beyond the lip service. That the federation is not just sweeping America’s problems under the rug. That it is a modern organization willing to support employees who feel morally obligated to bring the most attention possible to an issue that won’t go away on its own.

Currently, U.S. Soccer is the only American sports league or governing body that insists that its athletes stand for the anthem. Even the NFL, after temporarily forbidding the practice, eventually decided to allow players to kneel if they want to.

The U.S. Soccer Federation now has the opportunity show — not just say — how much it opposes racism, simply by following suit.

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