Last week we wrote about Megan Rapinoe’s uncertainty heading into the USWNT’s friendly against Thailand. There was speculation over whether she would continue her national anthem protests in order to draw attention to racism and police brutality while playing for the national team. Rapinoe herself said she wasn’t sure what she was going to do— the protests were important to her, but she also didn’t want to distract from Heather O’Reilly’s last game for the national team.
When the moment came, Rapinoe took a knee in the technical area during the national anthem. Her fellow substitutes did not kneel with her, but they stood close to her. After the game, she admitted that while she felt conflicted, she knew that she did the right thing. She also said that the acknowledges protesting before a national team game has a bigger impact, and that she believes she’s representing her country— everybody in her country, not just “people who look like [her]”— when she kneels in protest.
Rapinoe continued her protest last night before the USWNT’s friendly against The Netherlands.
Soon after the whistle blew for full-time on the USWNT's 9-0 win over Thailand last Thursday, US Soccer released a statement making it clear they were Not Amused.
Hours before their friendly vs The Netherlands last night, US Soccer made it clear that that statement would be the extent of their recriminations against Rapinoe, and that she would not be formally disciplined.
US Soccer can make whatever rules it wants for employees to follow (so long as they don't violate labor regulations). They're not the government, and Rapinoe's first amendment rights don't protect her from professional or social consequences her protests incur. US Soccer are within their rights to discipline Rapinoe as they see fit if they believe she's bringing the organization into disrepute. Most reasonable people will concur with that.
Likewise, her teammates have every right to speak out (or not) in response to her protests, as Carli Lloyd did prior to kickoff against The Netherlands.
Media outlets also have the right to report on her protests however they see fit, something which Fox Sports took full advantage of by devoting much of their pregame show to criticizing Rapinoe for essentially not doing enough to solve the problems she's drawing attention to.
Fans also have the right to boo Rapinoe, as they did last night when she was subbed on for Lindsey Horan in the 64th minute of the USWNT's 3-1 win over the visitors.
And Fox Sports also has the right to use those boos as an opening to spend a further two or three minutes during the broadcast criticizing Rapinoe for being a distraction, and to do so, curiously, without ever mentioning the reason for her protests.
Having said all that, the statement from US Soccer is remarkably out of touch. There's a lot going on here, but I want to focus on this particular line:
”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.”
For now, let's put aside the implication that the best way to reflect on “the liberties and freedom” we're all entitled to in the US is by pointedly not exercising those liberties and freedom. The tone-deafness in US Soccer's statement rests on the “all” in that particular sentence. The entire point of Rapinoe's protest, something which she has explained at length, is that not everyone is afforded the same liberties and freedoms US Soccer alludes to. Simple, everyday liberties that white men enjoy without even thinking about can get a black man killed in this country. Just pointing this out has resulted in massive political backlash— and, where BLM protests are concerned, violent recrimination. And when Colin Kaepernick started protesting last month, police threatened to go on strike until the 49ers punished him and gave them back their “safe space.” Rapinoe's protests call attention to a massive political power imbalance in American society that literally kills people and US Soccer is trying to pretend that the problem simply doesn't exist.
But more than that, US Soccer are, themselves, taking a strong partisan political stance and trying to pass it off as neutrality. Enforcing the status quo is a political position. Defending police from criticism for brutalizing poor and marginalized communities is a political position. Enforcing unwavering support for the military tying that to a compulsory and uncritical patriotism is a political position. US Soccer is trying to pass itself off as a neutral arbiter in an otherwise messy political debate when it is clearly anything but. It's worth asking how and why they came to adopt these political positions as an organization— not that we'll ever get an answer from them, of course, but the questions need to be asked.
There's a similar dynamic at play in the criticism of Rapinoe's protests, in particular from Lloyd and from Fox Sports commentators. It's always Rapinoe that's the cause of distraction, and not the thing she's protesting. The message, intentional or not, is clear: whatever problems society faces due to the prevalence of violence and injustice, they pale in comparison to the greater sin of drawing attention to it. It's exactly the kind of sentiment you'd expect in a culture where calling someone a racist is a greater breach of decorum than being a racist.
Of course, there's a hidden component here that's bound up in who US Soccer considers to be their customer base. The organization has thrown their full-throated support behind the American Outlaws, who have become synonymous with loud and ostentatious displays of patriotism in service of support for the USMNT and USWNT. Their internal struggles with inclusiveness notwithstanding, there are a number of AO members who, among other things, don't view Rapinoe's protests too kindly.
That tweet was removed, but it may speak to an emerging political consensus within US national team fan culture that US Soccer is catering to with their stance on Rapinoe.
Megan Rapinoe has received a lot of criticism for taking the privilege of “representing her country”— which, strictly speaking, is somewhat tricky, since US Soccer is not a government agency— and made it all about her. She’s responded by saying that this is pointedly not about her. This is about the people in this country who aren’t afforded the same freedom and justice as others because of the color of their skin. This is about popping the bubble she and others in the USWNT’s orbit are in, where racism and segregation are not exactly foreign influences. This is about bringing attention to the inescapable fact that we live in a country founded on liberty and justice for some.
Or, as Rapinoe said after the game:
”We need to look at all the things the flag and the anthem represent and all the things it means, and is it protecting everybody? There are people who don’t feel as protected as I do every day. I know it’s a time-honored tradition. Especially in a sports environment, it’s something the country is very passionate about, but there is a bigger conversation here that is more important than sports.”
In this way, US Soccer was wrong. Rapinoe’s protest does afford us an opportunity to “reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country.” The problem is that US Soccer, and others, don’t like what they see.