I recently heard a rumor that Colin Kaepernick wouldn’t be kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem during the next NFL season. (Assuming, of course, he has a team to play for at that point.) No word from the other players in the league at this point but there’s a different sporting league where allegedly this won’t even be a question. The US Soccer Federation has now instituted a rule which will forbid such displays and instructs their players to “stand respectfully” during the ceremony. How well do you suppose that’s going over? (Washington Post)
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.”
The author of this piece is George Quraishi, self-described “liberal editor” of Howler magazine, a periodical dedicated to kickball. He actually goes on at length to make a few good points about why the league would be interested in supporting more “traditional values” such as honoring and defending the nation. There is a bit less focus on some of the perhaps more financially oriented motives which might drive the league to try to avoid the sort of problems that the NFL has run into. But no matter what’s at the heart of it, this sounds like a good decision to me.
Unfortunately, George then goes on to begin throwing shade (or however the kids are saying that these days) not so much at the US Soccer Federation, but the entire sport itself. Because it’s, you know… racist. (Emphasis added)
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.
Yes, I’ll come right out of the gate scoffing at a number of things being claimed there. A sport can’t technically be “racist” in and of itself and on the few occasions that I do wind up seeing clips from soccer matches I’ve noticed black players as well as Hispanics and pretty much everyone else. But to be honest, they do seem to be the exceptions and it is a fairly “white sport.” I think the author makes a good point in saying that prohibitive costs for getting into and operating soccer leagues at the K – 12 level could very well dampen participation among minorities. This is similar to a long-running pattern of seeing fewer black swimmers at high levels of competition. Having and maintaining a swimming pool is extremely expensive, so those programs tend to wind up being centered in wealthier (read as less ethnically diverse) communities. But yet again, that’s not “racism” for the sake of being racist. It’s a byproduct of economic disparity between communities, with the wealthier ones where you find swimming pools and soccer leagues having fewer families of color to begin with.
Returning to the original question, I’ll be curious to see what the response is to this new rule, not only from the players, but from the fans in terms of the league’s television ratings. The NFL has taken a serious beating from the rampant politicization of football and even some of the longest term, most diehard fans have shown up in my social media streams cursing the NFL for their failure to step in, get control of the situation and go back to simply promoting the beauty and excellence of the sport. Would soccer suffer from the same detrimental effects if they failed to do something? And will they see any measurable benefit by taking this stand? I was looking at a couple of articles which discuss the ratings of men’s and women’s soccer games in the United States and when you compare them to NFL broadcasts it seems as if a significant change in those figures might be hard to measure. Aside from the World Cup, there aren’t too many games which are exactly drawing blockbuster numbers.
Still, hats off to the soccer league. They’re trying to keep the focus on sports and not turning it into yet another divisive entry in the political circus. Perhaps the NFL could take a lesson from this.