The “Kaepernick Effect” spread swiftly through U.S. professional and amateur sports in the weeks after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem at a football game in August. But only a single pro soccer player — U.S. women’s national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe — chose to join the wave of protests, kneeling before games that the Seattle Reign played and before several U.S. matches. Apparently that didn’t sit well with the people who run the U.S. Soccer Federation. Because this week, the U.S. Soccer Federation introduced a new policy designed to keep Rapinoe on her feet. From now on, “All persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented.”
Those who defend Rapinoe’s right to kneel point out the irony of telling someone how to observe a song celebrating her freedom of conscience. It’s not like Rapinoe is scratching her armpits and making chimp noises, or, as a high school soccer teammate of mine once did, pretending to stretch while relieving herself in the grass. She’s making a principled statement befitting someone who takes seriously what it means to live in the land of the free.
Those who favor the new policy, such as former men’s national team defender-turned-commentator Alexi Lalas, say that playing for the United States is a privilege, so Rapinoe can kneel on her own time, away from the spotlight. That’s not protesting, though; that’s yoga. According to this thinking, Rapinoe can either submit to the federation or continue to kneel and face the consequences — whatever those turn out to be. The First Amendment won’t protect her, either. U.S. Soccer already tells players when to go to sleep, what to eat and how to defend indirect free kicks, so why not this?
As the liberal editor of an American soccer magazine, I’ve been watching with interest, because this issue brings the realities of our country’s familiar political divisions to the sport. And although I sympathize with the Black Lives Matter movement that inspired Rapinoe’s protest, I understand why U.S. Soccer would prioritize values such as love of country and respect for symbols of national unity. What’s more, Rapinoe picked this fight, bravely subverting those values in the service of elevating others that she believes to be more important. She must have known that traditional forces would oppose her.
To me, though, the new policy isn’t the story. Rapinoe was already violating a deeply ingrained custom. Now continuing the protest would be officially breaking the rules, not just flouting norms. What interests me about the unanimous decision by U.S. Soccer’s board of directors is that it verbalized a message that the soccer establishment has been sending to black Americans for decades: This sport is not for you.
That might seem harsh. After all, U.S. Soccer has overseen the game’s tremendous, decades-long growth in the United States, and there are numerous examples of black players who have made their mark for the national team. But the federation has done little to improve the basic model of youth soccer, which ensures that elite clubs are accessible mostly to kids whose families are rich enough to buy entry. There is a swirl of socioeconomic and cultural reasons so few African Americans play our sport, but the bottom line is that soccer requires less equipment than almost any other game — and yet in the United States, it is one of the costliest to play.
We — most white Americans — are not in favor of a justice system that discriminates against black people, but we go about our lives largely indifferent to it. This is Kaepernick’s message. As overt racism has waned in the past few decades, indifference has replaced it as the next great barrier to real societal rehabilitation. By kneeling, he forces us to confront that indifference. The participation of a white athlete such as Rapinoe gives the protest another dimension. She’s an openly gay professional athlete — she has her own battles to fight — which makes her kneeling an act of empathy, of imagining a way to expand the boundaries we draw when defining the word “we.”
Forbidding it is an assertion of indifference. We’re not in favor of maintaining structural barriers that keep black kids from playing soccer; we’re just indifferent to them.
Why has the National Football League, where scores of players joined Kaepernick’s protest, not introduced a similar policy? The idea of patriotism is no less ingrained in the mythology of American football. It may have something to do with the fact that about 70 percent of all pro football players are black. In Major League Soccer, our country’s most diverse sports league, the number is 12 percent. Not a single member of U.S. Soccer’s board of directors is black. Simply put, African Americans are part of football’s idea of “we,” but not American soccer’s.
I suspect that by snuffing out this protest, U.S. Soccer thinks it is escaping from a heated political environment. But the reverse is true. Forcing Rapinoe to stand is itself a political act. Had the federation preserved the right of individuals to act according to their beliefs, it could claim neutrality. Instead, it weighed two sets of values that Rapinoe forced into opposition and chose sides.
You’ll find that same dynamic on any soccer team — a tension between submission to the collective and individual freedom of expression. Lalas knows this well. He used the lessons of his rock-and-roll idols to build a wild-child public persona that surpassed his considerable soccer skills. But he was a center back, a position that requires structure, organization and discipline, and one that ultimately reacts to the gambits of offensive players looking to create. When his coach told him to choose between cutting his hair or being kicked off the national team, out came the shears.
Rapinoe has said she will stop kneeling. But she has the mind of a midfielder, and I hope she uses it to keep imagining things we haven’t seen before.