It would have been inconceivable just a few years ago, but the longstanding tradition of playing the national anthem before sporting events in the United States of America is legitimately up for debate.
The topic roared back to fore over the weekend, after the National Women’s Soccer League became the first North American team sports league to resume amid the coronavirus pandemic and — more pertinently — the first to return since the killing of George Floyd sparked worldwide outrage. As “The Star-Spangled Banner” played before Saturday’s nationally televised NWSL Challenge Cup opener, every starter for the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns took a knee to protest against systemic racism and police brutality and to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
In the wake of Floyd’s death and others, a majority of Americans now support athletes peacefully and silently taking a knee during the anthem, a Yahoo News poll recently showed. That wasn’t the case when then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the practice in 2016, or when U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe became one of the first white athletes to join him when she knelt before a pair of USWNT matches later that year.
Leagues and governing bodies have been trying (and mostly failing) to figure out how to appropriately respond ever since. The NFL initially banned kneeling during the anthem, then quickly changed its mind as additional players besides Kaepernick continued to kneel through the 2019 season. The U.S. Soccer Federation implemented a rule against kneeling that was kept in place for three years before being scrapped earlier this month under pressure from media and its own players. Since then, the calls to stop playing the anthem before domestic sporting events have gotten only louder.
As the first league back since Floyd’s death, NWSL’s leadership knew that its players wanted to make a statement, and thus wanted the anthem played. Major League Soccer, on the other hand, said it would not play the anthem before games when its own summer tournament kicks off in Orlando, Florida, on July 8.
Ostensibly, the decision was made because the health crisis will prevent fans from attending.
The reality is that not having fans in attendance also gives leagues a convenient excuse to avoid the controversy altogether. In a way, getting rid of anthem now feels like a cop-out, an easy way to let leagues and fans off the hook from having to face serious issues they must confront.
One can certainly argue that the NWSL has put its players in a difficult situation. Some saw the image of Casey Short, a Black player on the Chicago Red Stars so overcome with emotion during the anthem that teammate Julie Ertz was literally catching her tears, as cheap exploitation. The few players who chose not to kneel alongside their teammates were promptly lambasted on social media. The many international players in the league were forced into the uncomfortable position of having to pick a side.
But making people “uncomfortable” and asking them to “pick a side” is exactly what Kaepernick and Rapinoe wanted to do in 2016. Many of their critics made it about the flag, or the military, which it never was. (A Green Beret suggested Kaepernick kneel as a show respect for service members.) But many also claimed they wanted those two athletes and others to speak out in a different way, or at a different time, and not during the anthem, because then it wouldn’t be so in their face. Then they wouldn’t have to think about the ugly parts of American history, the country’s original sin of slavery or the shameful marginalization of Black people that continues to this day.
Over this past month or so, a significant portion of the U.S. population has been forced to confront those truths in a direct and meaningful way for the first time in their lives. To bring about lasting change, those difficult conversations will need to keep happening.
One of the most impassioned voices from the NWSL’s opening weekend came from Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden. “I’ll stand when the people behind bars aren’t disproportionately Black or Latino,” Gorden wrote in Instagram. “When my son can go to his neighborhood school because it has the same resources as the one we applied to in the wealthy white neighborhood.
“I’ll stand when the country looks the same for my black son as it does for your white son/daughter,” she continued, after also noting the disproportionate wealth gap and maternal mortality rates between the races. “Until then, I kneel.”
There is a case to be made for getting rid of the anthem before domestic sporting events. But the issues Gorden raises aren’t going anywhere, and not playing the anthem anymore prevents people from really asking themselves what kind of country they want to leave to their children, of what side of history they want to be on.
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