U.S. Soccer Reconsiders Its National Anthem Policy
U.S. Soccer Reconsiders Its National Anthem Policy
U.S. Soccer’s board of directors met Tuesday to discuss rescinding a policy that requires players and staff members to “stand respectfully” for the national anthem, joining FIFA, the N.F.L. and other sports organizations that are reconsidering their stance on the right of athletes to peacefully protest, even when they are on the field.
The board’s discussion took place on a conference call arranged by U.S. Soccer’s new president, Cindy Parlow Cone, who called it after several federation staff members raised the anthem policy in a federation-wide all-hands meeting last week. The prospect of repealing the rule has since gained the backing of the players associations representing the men’s and women’s national teams.
It was not clear if U.S. Soccer’s board would reach of a decision on Tuesday, or delay any vote, or announcement, until its regularly scheduled board meeting on Friday.
Objections to the anthem policy are not new. Since its inception in March 2017 after a series of kneeling protests by the star midfielder Megan Rapinoe, the rule had long been derided as unclear in its requirements, divisive among fans and unpopular with the players that were its target. But after protests about police violence in more than 600 American cities in recent weeks raised questions about representation, unequal treatment and limits on expression in workplaces across the country — including inside a U.S. Soccer federation still recovering from its own culture crisis — overturning it took on a renewed urgency.
On Monday night, the players associations representing the men’s and women’s national teams, as well as the influential U.S. Soccer Athlete Council, joined the campaign. The lawyer for the men’s team called the policy “an ill-advised and insensitive political statement,” and said the players he represents never had any intention of honoring it.
A statement from the women’s team went further, demanding that U.S. Soccer not only repeal the policy and acknowledge it was wrong when it was adopted, but also issue “an apology to our black players and supporters.”
U.S. Soccer’s conversations about abandoning the policy, which was most likely unenforceable against the senior national teams, were taking place amid similar backtracking by other leagues.
Last week, Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the N.F.L., released a video in which he pledged to support the players’ concerns and also their right to peacefully protest — a startling U-turn for a league that paid a multimillion-dollar settlement to settle claims that quarterback Colin Kaepernick was blackballed from the league after kneeling to protest police brutality during the national anthem.
The N.B.A. has had an anthem rule on its books since 1981 that compels coaches, players and trainers “to be present, stand and line up in a dignified posture,” and the players have never pushed to have it changed. But numerous N.B.A. players have taken part in recent protests, and six weeks before games are scheduled to resume it is not clear if there will be a renewed focus on the rule, or challenges to it. But the league appears willing to discuss it. “As has been the case of the last several years, we will work in partnership with the players on important issues like this,” Mike Bass, an N.B.A. spokesman, said Tuesday.
Even FIFA, soccer’s politics-averse global governing body, put out a statement last week in the wake of several on-field gestures and expressions of support for protesters by players in Germany’s top league. League and federation officials, FIFA said, “should use common sense and have in consideration the context surrounding the events” before punishing anyone for a peaceful protest.
“For the avoidance of doubt,” Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, said, “in a FIFA competition the recent demonstrations of players in Bundesliga matches would deserve an applause and not a punishment.”
U.S. Soccer’s anthem policy was enacted in 2017, several months after Rapinoe silently dropped to one knee as it was played before several matches. Rapinoe said she was acting in solidarity with Kaepernick, and to amplify his concerns about racial injustice and police brutality. The protests by Kaepernick, Rapinoe and other athletes angered many, though, and almost immediately the discussion devolved into a debate about patriotism and respect for the flag instead of the underlying social issues Kaepernick had raised.
Rapinoe said: “I think that we need to look at all the things that we say the flag and the anthem mean and everybody that it represents and all the liberties and the freedoms that we want it to mean to everybody. And ask ourselves: Is it protecting everybody in the same way? Is it giving all the freedoms to everyone in the country the same way, or are there certain people that don’t feel as protected as I do every day?”
Though Rapinoe first knelt at a National Women’s Soccer League match, her decision to continue to do so when she took the field for U.S. Soccer briefly led to her being dropped from the national team by the team’s coach, Jill Ellis. While Ellis expressed support for Rapinoe’s views, she labeled the kneeling an unwelcome “individual agenda” in a team environment. Rapinoe’s teammate Carli Lloyd, who also said she respected Rapinoe’s opinions, called it a “distraction.”
U.S. Soccer approved the policy months later and outlined it to its members at its general meeting in March 2017. It read: “All persons representing a federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of the national anthems at any event in which the federation is represented.”
Punishments for violating it were never made explicit — most likely because the teams had never agreed to them — and Rapinoe soon announced she would stop kneeling and returned to the fold. By last summer’s World Cup in France, her protest had evolved: While her teammates placed their hands over their hearts and sang along with the anthem before games, Rapinoe, the team’s most prominent player, stood silently with her arms at her sides.
The twist, according to the women’s national team players association, was that the policy had never been enforceable against players on U.S. Soccer’s senior national teams. Becca Roux, the executive director of the women’s team’s players association, noted that each team operates under its own collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer, and that both agreements include procedures that must be followed in the event of any change in work rules or penalties for players who might violate them.
For this reason, Roux said Monday, the anthem policy “does not now and has never applied to U.S. women’s national team players.” The union, she added, “intends to continue to resist any efforts made by the federation to require players to abide by the ‘anthem policy’ in that we never agreed to the proposed implementation of the rule.”
Marc Stein contributed reporting.