Thursday night, Megan Rapinoe knelt during the US national anthem before the USWNT took on Thailand. This protest, unprecedented at the international level, was met with anger on social media and a statement from US Soccer that seemed to miss the point of Rapinoe’s protest entirely. It all reflects yet another reason why people of color are absent from this nation’s soccer stands.
Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly. US Soccer has every right to criticize Rapinoe for her protest and (depending on contractual language) to force her to stand during the anthem with a threat of expulsion. The same freedom of speech that allows Rapinoe to protest allows her to face the repercussions of that same action. It also allows us to publicly judge US Soccer and Rapinoe’s critics for their inability to empathize with the very real injustices that Rapinoe, Colin Kaepernick, and many other players around the nation are trying to highlight.
Scouring social media Friday morning, I came across few messages that were critical of Rapinoe’s actions while also affirming support for the issues she’s protesting. Rather the criticism broke down into four major groups:
The first criticism is easy to answer as it’s the issues of injustice (and our reaction to them) that matter; her reason for bringing them to the fore do not. And this points to another reaction that mostly goes unstated except in the radical fringes of the conversation: today’s America is free from injustice and Kaepernick/Rapinoe are making it all up. Let’s start there and then move on to the others.
A few weeks ago, Maine Governor Paul LePage stated on camera that “people of color” are “the enemy”. The quote shows a shockingly racist worldview even when taken in its context of the war on drugs in Maine. The FBI reported in 2014 that only 7.4 percent of those arrested in Maine for drugs were black; The vast majority were white. Today’s Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, started his campaign with a press conference with the horrific (and provably false) statement that most Mexicans in the United States are “criminals” and “rapists.” Trump received 14 million votes in the Republican primary and LePage has been re-elected twice. Trump is still the Republican nominee and LePage is still in office.
I’m not sure I can personally do what Colin Kaepernick did. But then again I’m not a young black man in America and I don’t have first-hand experience with the kind of injustice that is the legacy of almost 200 years of legally codified racism. I suspect Colin had a vastly different reaction than I when he heard that the men responsible for the death of 12 year-old Tamir Rice had escaped trial due to a biased prosecutor. I suspect he also had a stronger reaction to hearing about the shocking death of Philando Castile, which occurred here in the Twin Cities.
When Trump and LePage enter a sports stadium, their racist views don’t change and people of color aren’t immune to injustice simply because it’s a sports event. Even the organizations that bring us sports are far from racially representative in their leadership. According to a 2015 report from The Institute From Diversity And Ethics In Sport, 68 percent of NFL players were black. In contrast, only 9.4 percent of league office management was black, 12 percent of head coaches were black, and exactly 0 CEOs/presidents and team owners were black. MLS does somewhat better in the area of the league office, but its statistics for coaches, GMs, CEOs/presidents, and team owners aren’t more representative than those of the NFL.
The problem is evident at games closer to home too. At Minnesota United games I stand in front of the crowd with a megaphone leading chants. My own style of “capoing” can be a little aggressive; I sometimes wade into the stands and confront people who aren’t singing. I was discussing this with a friend recently who shared that he can’t take after me. Being a young black male, he’s always careful to curb how aggressive he appears in order not to scare people in the crowd. Sports stadium or not, my friend can’t escape people’s stereotypical associations with young African American men.
Racism and injustice don’t stop at the stadium gate and neither should activism against them. The closeted approach to activism in sports has led to a repressed culture in the major league where there are still only a handful of openly gay male athletes. How can we say truly say sports are a place to be free from politics and “the real world” when the people playing them aren’t able to be themselves in the stadium. The only people able to enjoy sports free from politics are those for whom injustice is a political issue rather than one of basic human rights. These are the same people who can respond to prominent politicians espousing openly racist or bigoted views on television with, “well he’s not talking about me.” Kaepernick can’t. Megan Rapinoe can’t.
Hearing their voices and those of so many others, it’s hard for me to judge the vehicle of their protest or its location. They’re pointing to a very real and deeply unsettling issue. In this light, it’s also concerning to see US Soccer’s statement include the line, “In front of national and often global audiences, the playing of our national anthem is an opportunity for our Men’s and Women’s National Team players and coaches to reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country.” (Emphasis mine.) Rapinoe’s whole point is that not everyone in this nation is enjoying the same “liberties and freedom.” I suspect one example she would point to would be the transgender community in North Carolina.
The social media messages that do actually accept the existence of injustice in America dismiss the need for protest by arguing that this country is still better than others. One comment on Reddit can be paraphrased as such: “America has it far better than most places. Perhaps Megan Rapinoe would enjoy moving to her opponents’ homeland of Thailand which faces a deepening human rights crisis.” We only have to look at America’s origins to break down this ‘they have it worse so we’re just fine” argument. A note from King George pointing out the plight of the slaves is unlikely to have turned the founders away from their road to revolution. The greater injustice of slavery didn’t prevent them from fighting the oppression of the British. I suspect most of Rapinoe’s critics wouldn’t take kindly to being told George Washington should have laid down his arms until he freed his slaves or until the rest of world’s plight caught up to that of the Americans.
This country struggles with the fact that the brave men and women who endowed it with its freedoms were slaveowners. Their deification is justified because they were products of their time and because they created a great nation that was able to recognize the horror of slavery and banish it from the land. Like the founders, millions of Americans who came after them have fought to create “a more perfect union.”
That’s precisely what Megan Rapinoe is fighting for. She knelt as a proud American who believes her fellow citizens will want to hear her message and work to better their country. During her lifetime, Megan has seen the great strides this country has made in the area of LGBTQ rights but also personally witnessed the grave effort needed to fight injustice. If she hated America or felt it was truly beyond redemption, she wouldn’t have protested because there would be no point to it.
According to African-American USWNT alum Briana Scurry, US domestic soccer continues to be viewed among minorities as a “white suburban sport.” That reality is borne out in domestic soccer stands which still lack the kind of diversity one would expect given the sport’s internationalism. The largest national soccer supporters group has also recently had very public struggles with accusations of bigotry and xenophobia among its membership. The national soccer federation publicly opposing Rapinoe’s protest fits into this unfortunate context quite well.
It also puts the USSF in the awkward position of having responded in a more tone deaf fashion than the NFL and the San Francisco 49ers who responded to Colin Kaepernick by affirming his personal right to protest. There’s also been the cynical suggestion that federation’s statement was a deliberate self-serving attempt to appeal to ”young flag bandana wearers who care more about (often ugly) “patriotism” than soccer” or “corporate sponsors.” Whatever the real reason for it, the USSF’s reaction to Rapinoe has damaged the reputation of this sport as one friendly to people of color.