US Soccer has long been subject to tensions between its more nativist, nationalist impulses and more liberal, progressive tendencies. That battle may be coming to a head now in the age of Donald Trump as the national federation is taking a political stance in favour of the status quo with its policy banning protests by players during the playing of the US anthem. As expected, all players in the US men’s national team respected the policy when the team have played this summer. And in their games since the ban came into force, the women’s team have done so, too.
Yet, at some level, the US Soccer Federation’s decision is an overreaction. There has only been one incident of a player kneeling: last September Megan Rapinoe, a member of the women’s national team, took a knee during the national anthem in a game between her club, the Seattle Reign and the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL, the women’s professional football league. She repeated the protest in games for the US national team against Thailand and the Netherlands.
Rapinoe was, of course, taking her lead from NFL football player Colin Kaepernick who for much of 2016 protested against racism and police brutality in the United States by kneeling during the national anthem.
Athletes from a variety of sporting disciplines and levels (from high school to professional) followed suit. As a gay athlete, Rapinoe felt that her liberties were not protected in the US, and also stressed the importance of having “white people stand in support of people of colour on [police brutality]”.
Right-wing critics countered with the pervasive delusion that sport and politics are not and should not be mixed, while some liberals contended that athletes who don’t stand for the anthem were being disrespectful to the military or anti-American. (With the new season beckoning, Kaepernick, currently without a team, announced he is ceasing his anthem protest, though he wouldn’t end his activism on police brutality.) So, the move by US Soccer (as the federation is popularly known) was clearly a direct response to Rapinoe’s protest but it was also pre-emptive; a means to censor future protest.
The new policy just made explicit the approach US Soccer took in 2016 at the height of the anthem protests when it said it expected players and coaches to stand for the anthem.
According to the policy, “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.” Rapinoe’s protest was clearly not welcomed by US Soccer. Yet, as disappointing as it is that they have chosen to restrict the freedom of expression of players and coaches, we should not be surprised by this development. While other big sports such as American football and baseball tend to be seen as more patriotic and nativist (witness how hard it is for Kaepernick to get a job in the NFL), no other major American sports league – which are all private organisations – has enacted such a restrictive policy.
Football as a progressive bastion
US Soccer has been rightly criticised, both before and after the release of the new policy, for its double talk (taking a political stance on the issue while pretending to remain neutral). One explanation put forward for US Soccer’s stance is that can it afford to be indifferent about police brutality which disproportionately affects black people. Most football players are white, both at amateur level and in the MLS (12 percent of professional players against, for example, the NFL where 70 percent are black). The same goes for women’s professional football in the US. In addition, none of US Soccer’s board of directors are black, as the football magazine editor George Quraishi has pointed out.
Despite its lack of racial diversity, in the US, football thrives on a media image of “being liberal/progressive/cosmopolitan [because] it’s international”. During the 2014 World Cup, a poll by YouGov (PDF) demonstrated that liberals are more likely than conservatives to be soccer fans. And football has often been attacked by conservatives, including right-wing pundit Ann Coulter’s bizarre claim that its growing popularity in the US somehow represents a “sign of the nation’s moral decay”. So, football tends to be associated with openness and diversity.
But this picture of football as a progressive bastion is only partly true. As the writer James Bridget Gordon wrote last year, despite this image “US Soccer is a business”. And protesting players are certainly not good for business. Patriotism is. It is also true that a number of team owners are big GOP donors or supporters. In fact, one of the cofounders of MLS and owner of the LA Galaxy, Phil Anschutz, has been associated with financial support for ultraconservative and right-wing causes. Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots and a major booster of Donald Trump, is also owner of the MLS’s New England Revolution. And while Rapinoe’s own team in the NWSL supported her protest, Rapinoe accused Bill Lynch, owner of the Washington Spirit, of being a homophobe after the team played the anthem before the players took the field in a game against the Reign in order to deny Rapinoe the chance to protest.
Thirdly, like many other sports in the US, the business of US Soccer has intimate ties to the military. A government oversight report (PDF) released in 2015 outlined the more than “$10 million … paid to teams in the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), National Basketball Association (NBA), National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Soccer (MLS)” by the Department of Defense for what the report called “paid patriotism”, displays honouring American soldiers. In total eight MLS teams – Seattle Sounders, Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake, DC United, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, and Columbus Crew – received military funding. Beyond this, these and other clubs also regularly host “Military Appreciation Nights”.
Some of the sport’s leading players and personalities have also been guilty of xenophobia. Only three years ago, Bruce Arena, now coach of the men’s national team, said “players on the national team should be … Americans. If they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress”. To his credit, Arena later changed his tune. Separately, Tim Howard, the longtime number one choice as national team goalkeeper, publicly questioned the “pride” of foreign-born, dual national players (mostly players whose black fathers served the US Army in Germany and started families there with German women.) Abby Wambach, a former teammate of Rapinoe, also backed up Howard’s comments.
One of the most outspoken supporters of the anthem protest ban is Alexi Lalas, former men’s national team member and now a commentator on television. Separately, Geoff Cameron, a member of the US men’s national team who plays for Stoke City in the English Premier League, expressed support for President Trump’s visa and refugee ban for citizens of seven Muslim majority countries, as well as for the anthem protest ban. Coach Arena has also said he is “very supportive” of the new anthem policy.
This xenophobia, which reflects a narrow understanding of who could be American (that designation happens to imply ethnically white, middle-class Americans) coupled with what some have dubbed a “Europhilic American soccer culture” (in which US football culturally and tactically identifies with its supposed English “roots”) may explain why US Soccer and MLS has failed to attract Latino American fans to its games. Journalists have pointed to the spectacle of MLS club fans singing xenophobic and violent songs that originate in European leagues, identifying the game with white, suburban culture.
Nevertheless, to paint US Soccer as a right-wing enterprise would be unfair. Of course, there are still progressive, cosmopolitan, and anti-racist elements within US Soccer but its identity is more complex than the one that is often projected. At the time, Rapinoe said she will respect the policy, but that does not mean that her resistance has ended. It is also the case that US men’s captain Michael Bradley and even Arena condemned Trump’s immigration ban. But in perhaps the most clarifying moment, only days after Trump was elected president, the US men’s national team played Mexico in a World Cup qualifier. During the campaign, Trump had threatened to build a Wall between the two countries and made racist generalisations about Mexicans and Mexican Americans. It helped win Trump the election. Before the match, the two teams posed together for a picture. Mexico won the match, but the symbolism wasn’t lost on the participants. Mexican striker, Oribe Peralta, tweeted after the match: “There is no wall that can stop us”.
Reactions to anthem protests and the subsequent ban have tended to focus on whether kneeling is an anti-American act or whether banning protest is a violation of the first amendment. Yet the issue is arguably deeper than that. It exemplifies the struggle to define the identity of US Soccer, which has so far failed to adequately live up to the progressive image often ascribed to it. The ban was a further step in the wrong direction.
Sean Jacobs is associate professor of international affairs at The New School. He founded the website, Africa is a Country.
Aubrey Bloomfield is a writer and researcher based in New York City and a recent graduate of The New School international affairs programme, where he wrote his master’s thesis on the role of sport in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.