United States Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) player Megan Rapinoe recently declared, “I’ll probably never put my hand over my heart. “I’ll probably never sing the national anthem again” (mphasis mine). Fewer than 30 days before the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, where USWNT will defend their world title, it was only a matter of time before the elephant in the room revealed itself once again.
It started three years ago, at the height of the national anthem protests. In a show of solidarity with protest spearhead Colin Kaepernick, Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem before a match with her club team and, later, before an international match. After U.S. Soccer expressed its disapproval, Rapinoe ceased her protest, but no longer sings the anthem nor places her hand over her heart.
Then and now, Rapinoe expressed anger with the reaction to the protests, including hers. “I think it’s actually pretty disgusting the way [Kaepernick] was treated and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn’t,” she said in 2016. “We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country.”
Rapinoe is correct—a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation regarding just about every issue is needed in this country. Besides toxic rhetoric, there is a startling lack of good faith and dedication to reasoned argument that is either the product of a faltering civil society or a contributing factor to it.
But, as the saying goes, there’s a time and place for everything. The Women’s World Cup is a prime face of the USWNT and a de facto national emissary. Is this international athletic tournament that has grown grander in stature over the years the place to air grievances and express what can only be described as contempt for one’s country?
Rapinoe Needs to Consider the Effects of Her Choices
The choice is hers alone. But should she persist in being a “walking protest,” as Rapinoe describes herself, she would benefit her team and country to acknowledge the unfortunate and unnecessary distraction and divisive effects her actions pose.
Of course, if Rapinoe feels as strongly about her cause as she seems, she is not only free to protest but probably should. Americans should never be forced to choose between their conscience and their livelihood, nor be discouraged from taking part in the important conversations of the day. The nation doesn’t need less engagement from citizens, it needs more.
But the freedom to protest has been conflated with the constitutional right to protest. As many legal analysts pointed out, there’s no such thing as the latter. Paul Callan explained in 2017: “The First Amendment restricts only the government from abridging ‘the freedom of speech.’ Private employers can do as they please. Thus, kneeling during the National Anthem can never be legally prohibited by the government, but can always be prohibited by private employers.”
Nobody needs to indulge any player’s personal conduct. As a recent interview with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro reveals, most fans believe athletics and politics shouldn’t mix.
Soccer’s Entry into the Culture War
In the case of U.S. Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), however, that ship may have already sailed. Both organizations became embroiled in the culture wars long before Rapinoe’s protests. Soccer in the United States has a strong LGBTQ following. U.S. Soccer celebrates Pride month every year and invests considerable time and money in LGBTQ-associated programs. More than any other sport in America, soccer has been at the forefront of ensuring LGBTQ people can partake in the game openly and have their interests represented.
A supporter of such gestures would counter by saying this isn’t about politics, but about acceptance, tolerance, and a constant reminder the game is open to all. But is it, really? In June 2017, fellow USWNT player Jaelene Hinkle discovered there isn’t a whole lot of room in professional soccer for those who aren’t in lockstep with the LGBTQ movement.
After being called up to the national team in June 2017, Hinkle, a devout Christian, withdrew herself from the roster, later citing personal opposition to wearing the rainbow-adorned jerseys celebrating Pride month. She faced tremendous backlash from fans and critics, who made a fair point about whether her views might cause issues in a LGBTQ-saturated sport—many players are open regarding their sexual orientation, which can generate controversy in other sports.
The point isn’t to judge Hinkle’s beliefs. It’s to show why so many Americans are wary of turning sports into yet another culture war battlefield. Hinkle’s views were virtually unknown prior to the June ’17 incident, and she didn’t divulge her reasons for her withdrawal until much later. Moreover, according to coaches and teammates, her “homophobic” views had never been an issue on the playing field.
Even her critics had no choice but to concede the Pride month flap had created an unfortunate dilemma where the USWNT would have to enter the World Cup without a player described by many as one of the best at her position. The culture wars’ effects on sports are undeniable—they impose ideological conformity in an arena where athletic ability and a willingness to represent one’s country should serve as the sole litmus test.
Nobody should be forced to choose between her conscience and her livelihood, but the culture wars often assess such a decision. Hinkle chose her conscience. Although she hasn’t expressed any regret, between her and Rapinoe, only one made such a choice, and it wasn’t the latter. More importantly, one player sacrificed a once-in-a-lifetime privilege due to her personal convictions, while the other insists on using that same privilege to essentially declare, “You’re either with me or against me.”
Rapinoe: Representing America?
Rapinoe will likely go down as one of the greatest soccer players in American history. She has been a key cog in the machine that has won three World Cups and is the clear favorite to win a fourth in 2019. It’s more reason why it’d be so unfortunate to see her as likely the only player in the entire tournament to draw such a stark line in the sand between herself and her country.
While Rapinoe insists her protest is about “representing all of America,” how exactly does a protest represent her country in any capacity? Protesting during a league game is one thing. Doing so during international matches is another. It sends the message that her differences with her country are irreconcilable to the point she, even on the grandest global stage of them all, cannot set them aside.
If these differences are irreconcilable, then why not follow the example of Hinkle and commit the ultimate protest of all: leave the national team? This would at least be consistent with Rapinoe’s belief that U.S. Soccer has insufficiently addressed the critical issues of the day, accusing the federation of “[trying] to just stop me from doing what I’m doing instead of at least having a conversation, and trying to figure out a [solution] that makes sense for everyone.”
Only extreme culture warriors honestly believe institutions like U.S. Soccer can solve all the world’s problems. They’re not policymakers nor partisan institutions. They exist solely to regulate a game beloved by millions around the world, entertain and, hopefully, unite a world in a shared passion.
For that unity to manifest, players must be willing to set aside their differences when walking onto the pitch. Representing all Americans includes representing those they don’t see eye-to-eye with.
The overall controversy would be minimal had Rapinoe chosen to pursue social justice during her personal time, but her insistence on using the soccer pitch to do it has made the situation more fraught than it needs to be. In the end, her “somber protest” will find acclaim among those who share her views and upbraid those who simply want to see the United States win another world title without engaging in self-loathing. Less hyperpartisanship might be a tough ask, but more is the last thing America needs.
Unfortunate as her actions may prove, Americans who choose to tune in to the 2019 Women’s World Cup can offset any negative impact her “somber protest” will have by setting the example themselves—support the USWNT and Rapinoe in a highly competitive tournament. It would send the message that, for all our differences, we still comprise one nation worth honoring and proudly representing on the world stage, proving again that yes, we can rise above our differences and accomplish great things. It’s the American thing to do.