Donald Trump will be the 45th President of the United States and there’s nothing we can do about it. Already the electorate is moving to normalize authoritarian demagoguery while the media tries to portray this as the natural order of things. (Just to be clear: none of this is normal.) The whole country seems eager to move on with their lives, even as Trump is already making it clear that things are going to be very different from here on out.
Earlier today I wrote about how soccer— the sport and the fans— might move forward in this Age of Trump. I offered that soccer can be a vehicle for resistance, but that there will be work to do to make that possible and to reinforce the values of a strong community and a tolerant society within football. We have to have the courage to stand up for what’s right and make space for people to make their voices heard.
US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, on the other hand, doesn’t see it that way. Just days after an autocratic strongman was elected to the highest office in the land, Gulati singled out Megan Rapinoe and her national anthem protests and said that the First Amendment doesn’t offer her any protection.
”I think our board feels quite strongly that there is a difference between playing for your club and your country on this issue. And we’ll see how that all plays out. We have a board meeting next month. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what the First Amendment actually says, in terms of freedom of speech. Yes, Megan or [Colin] Kaepernick or anyone else can’t get prosecuted for criminal charges for freedom of speech. That is not the case in any membership organization or any employment area or anything else. And so there is that point to start with. There is a right to freedom speech, she also has the obligations to putting on a national team uniform. And we think those are pretty strong when you’re representing the U.S. national team and wearing the crest.”
Strictly speaking, Gulati is correct. The First Amendment only protects your right to free speech in terms of criminal prosecution. It shields you from censorship the government. It does not shield you from social consequences. It does not shield you from criticism. And it does not, in most cases, shield you from your employer. Ever since Rapinoe started her protests, there has been speculation on whether the Seattle Reign, the NWSL, or indeed US Soccer would crackdown on her free expression while on the job. (US Soccer, it must be said, is not a government agency.) The fact that US Soccer has taken a largely hands-off approach to Rapinoe suggested that they were content to let Rapinoe do her thing. Gulati is just clarifying that such an assumption was premature.
It is very interesting, however, that these comments were made after the election of Donald Trump. In a political climate where critical speech is likely to be curtailed and critics have to “watch what they say,” it’s worth asking why US Soccer chose this particular moment to take a side. It could be a coincidence. It could be that it took this long for stakeholders to have the necessary conversations for how to move forward. But it could also be that, as bigots across the country have been emboldened by the election results, so too are people with power emboldened to tamp down on any “distractions” in their organization.
Sunil Gulati may never explain why he’s chosen now to clamp down on Rapinoe. But it’s still worth asking the question.