In her conversation with reporters late Wednesday at Maryland SoccerPlex, Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe covered several issues related to her national anthem protests. Mostly, she spoke of her disappointment about the Washington Spirit playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while the players were still in the locker room.
Her most biting comments, however, accused Bill Lynch, an Air Force veteran and software executive who has owned the team since the National Women’s Soccer League launch in 2013, of being homophobic.
[Those remarks were not included on the Insider’s original transcript of her media session because, in fairness to Lynch and the team, such a serious accusation required a response.]
Rapinoe was asked if being gay — and the fact the Spirit is one of two NWSL teams that does not hold a Pride Night to celebrate the LGBT community, which forms a large base of league support — played into the team’s decision to undermine her anthem plans.
“I do. Yeah, I do,” she said. “I have had conversations with Spirit players current and past, the fact that they don’t have a Pride Night. They have gay players like everyone else [in the league]. They’ve made it pretty clear, at least internally, that that’s not a game they are interested in, which is homophobic to me. I don’t know if it was directly at me because I’m gay and it’s a protest I am making as a gay woman. Bit of a stretch, but yeah I do think that Bill Lynch is homophobic.”
On Thursday, Lynch responded by telling the Insider: “She probably got lost in the moment and blurted something out. I certainly don’t agree with the statement, by any stretch.”
He said sexual orientation has never been an issue in assembling the squad or staff.
“We’re absolutely inclusive. Anyone claiming we’re not inclusive, it’s silly. [Sexuality] is not even something that gets discussed. We don’t make decisions based on race, gender or sexual preference. Unless someone is talking about it, I have no idea what their sexual preference is.”
Sources said there are mixed feelings within the organization about Lynch’s reluctance to hold Pride Night. Aside from several players, some staff members and many fans are part of the LGBT community.
But Lynch said he made a “conscious decision early on [in his ownership] not to promote any individual causes. I want to focus on women’s soccer and the game. Everyone is welcome to our games and to work in our organization.”
He said he doesn’t foresee his policy about promoting causes at matches to change.
Lynch said he did not decide to alter the anthem schedule until late Wednesday afternoon and told only a few staff members. Not even NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush, who attended the match, was informed. About an hour before the scheduled kickoff, he was engaged in conversation with Lynch on various soccer-related topics. Later, Plush told the Insider that, when he heard the anthem playing, he raced outside to see if Rapinoe and the other players were present.
The Spirit players learned of the anthem change from Coach Jim Gabarra in the locker room. Seattle players found out a moment later.
One Spirit employee was so upset about the anthem issue, she signed into the team’s Twitter account, posted a message in support of Rapinoe — it was soon deleted — and resigned.
Lynch said most of the feedback he has received has been positive.
The league might not be as kind. Playing the anthem without the players on the field could result in a fine or other sanction; teams are required to follow specific game-day protocol. Plush said Wednesday that it was too early to say whether the league will levy a penalty. He couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.
Also Thursday, Lynch further explained the decision to change the anthem schedule.
Last night I made the decision to play our national anthem earlier than scheduled. I absolutely believe that Megan feels she is doing the right thing. I believe her actions are coming from a perspective of genuinely wanting to make this country a better place.
My objective last night was to play the national anthem at our game without any show of disrespect to what I believe the anthem means. In playing the Anthem early, I did what I believed to be the right thing.
I completely believe in the full equality of all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or ability. I value all the members of our diverse team and Spirit Family and are committed to respecting each person who we are lucky enough to call a member or fan of our organization.
I believe that through our actions, we support those ideals and principles and we will continue to strive to make our games and our team an inclusive environment that celebrates our whole community. The Spirit does not promote individual causes or campaigns because we believe rather than selecting a handful of causes, our support and focus can best promote our commitment to equality through our daily actions of respect and inclusiveness.
By no means did I attempt to suppress the conversation on the issue of equality – it is my belief that we should have those conversations outside of the brief moments we take to honor our fallen and their contributions to our collective freedoms.
Professional athletes are in a unique position with incredible leverage to communicate a message. My understanding of Megan’s objective is to gain attention for an important and pressing conversation she wants to bring to the forefront of people’s minds. I understand and respect that, while feeling the need to balance my own objectives of showing the utmost respect for our veterans and honoring our national anthem.
While I disagree with Megan’s methodology, I support her efforts to help elevate this meaningful conversation.
Meantime, the Spirit announced that rookie forward Cali Farquharson will miss the rest of the season with a left ACL injury, suffered in the opening moments Wednesday. She appeared in 16 of 18 matches and started eight (no goals or assists).
The Spirit (12-3-3) and Reign (6-6-6) will meet again Sunday in Seattle, the penultimate game of the regular season for both teams. Rapinoe says she plans to kneel during the national anthem.