Ahead of the USMNT’s World Cup Qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines this afternoon, head coach Jürgen Klinsmann said he won’t compel his squad members to sing or otherwise observe the national anthem before kickoff.
The issue of athletes singing the Star-Spangled Banner has been a source of frothing rage online and in the sports media after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem before a preseason game last week. Kaepernick said he did so as a nonviolent protest against institutional racism generally and racist policing specifically. Because speaking out against racism is worse than racism, and because sports fans tend to have curious priorities, the backlash against Kaepernick’s peaceful and constitutionally-protected protest has grown to a fever pitch.
At his press conference, Klinsmann said that while he encourages players to sing as a show of pride for the country they represent, he would not force his players to do so.
”I understand everyone jumping into that discussion, and everyone has his own opinion, everyone has his own feelings when he listens to the national anthem. I wouldn’t force any player to do whatever, but I kind of asked them to enjoy this moment, to sing the anthem, to be thoughtful about who you represent.”
He also noted that his squad features several players, like Fabian Johnson and John Brooks, who spent much of their lives in Europe and don’t necessarily understand how big of a deal the national anthem is in the States. Klinsy said he makes an effort to help players connect with the anthem’s cultural significance and make the decision on their own to sing.
“Everybody builds a different connection to it, but I think it also needs a little bit of help. If you take John Brooks or Timmy Chandler, who didn’t grow up [in the US], born in Europe, they don’t have that connection to the American anthem like an American-born player here in the US. We handed it out. Sometimes we had the anthem in the meal room with a big text and a really cool design. I think it’s a cool feeling, and the players love it. And I’m not telling the players, ‘You have to sing it.’ Feel it in your own way. I sing it because I think it’s a gorgeous anthem.”
The issue of USMNT players specifically observing the anthem has come up in recent years. Toronto FC striker Jozy Altidore has faced criticism in the past over his refusal to sing before kickoff, something which his faith as a Jehovah’s Witness precludes. Altidore insisted he loves his country and is proud to represent it, but a small (and vocal) minority remains unconvinced.
The USA face off against St. Vincent and the Grenadines at 2:30pm EST today and wrap up the fourth round of the qualifying tournament on Tuesday against Trinidad and Tobago in Jacksonville, Florida. Group C is still competitive this late in the round and the USMNT will have to win both games to ensure a spot in the Hex. Yet it’s entirely possible the story of this game will focus on which players sing the anthem, because that’s just how the outrage cycle works these days.