US Soccer this afternoon announced a change to its association bylaws, establishing a requirement that players must “stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems.”
This policy seems to be a response to Megan Rapinoe’s decision last fall to kneel during the national anthem, in an effort to call attention to conditions of racial inequality in America. At the time, US Soccer released a response indicating disapproval for Rapinoe’s actions but did not seek to impose a formal punishment.
The new policy, as described, includes no explicit consequence for a violation, and it seems to be the case that infractions will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
Needless to say, this is a peculiar bylaw change—seemingly taken in order to communicate displeasure without offering much of a substantive change. However, the open-ended nature of the rule is potentially an area of concern, given the potential for arbitrary application.
Ultimately, though, this is primarily a battle over symbolism. And in that field, this is not a good look for US Soccer. If the goal of the national anthem is to offer a moment for collective celebration, the principle seems to lose much of its force if the behavior is coerced. This seems particularly true given the nature of the principles involved. To offer respect to the flag and the anthem, after all, is to affirm the core principles of the nation—such as liberty, freedom of conscience, and equality.
There is plenty of room for disagreement and debate about the proper measure of respect, the efficacy of protest, and the value of shared normative traditions. US Soccer has already indicated where it stands as an organization on this question. To double down by issuing a formal guideline and threatening punishment—and doing so months later—feels poorly considered at best, and counterproductive at worst. This is particularly true given that this policy seems to generate an enforced binary between ‘standing respectfully’ and all other behavior. In Rapinoe’s case, she chose to kneel not out of a desire to disrespect the flag, but merely to indicate her sense that the country remains a work in progress, and to call attention to the need for further progress.
Most Americans presumably believe that the flag (and the values it represents) deserves respect. But this does not render alternative points of view illegitimate, nor does such a consensus make ‘respect for the anthem’ an apolitical value.
Playing the national anthem is itself a form of politics. If US Soccer now asserts for itself the sole right to define the scope of response to that act, then it is not ‘keeping politics out of sports;’ it simply is enforcing its own political viewpoint onto the players.