Making a political statement during the national anthem is complicated for every athlete, but none more so than players wearing the red, white and blue.
Former U.S. men’s national team players Alexi Lalas and Landon Donovan made that clear two weeks before the current team takes the field for its do-or-die final games in World Cup qualifying. With a renewed emphasis on how athletes decide to protest after President Donald Trump’s disparaging comments led to on-field responses from NFL teams this past weekend, the question hangs over practically every team in America, especially the ones representing the nation and its song.
“There’s a difference between playing for your club team or a NFL team or a NBA team versus playing for your national team. I mean that is, you’re wearing the jersey with your colors,” Donovan told The Post on Tuesday at Fox Sports’ FIFA World Cup event in downtown Manhattan. “There’s a different feeling. Hearing the national anthem before a U.S. game was different and more meaningful than hearing it before an L.A. Galaxy game.
“It doesn’t mean your own personal beliefs go out the window, but there should be some nationalistic pride when you’re standing in that arena. So, how the guys balance that will be interesting.”
For those players who might want to use the anthem as a platform for their political views, they’ll have to overcome more than a moral tug-of-war.
U.S. Soccer passed a bylaw in February requiring all national team members to “stand respectfully during the playing of the national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented.” The federation’s president, Sunil Gulati, said at the time the penalty for failing to follow the policy would be determined on a case-by-case basis.
“I completely agree with the rule,” Lalas said Tuesday, adding that he doesn’t expect any players to violate the policy ahead of their Oct. 6 game against Panama.
“I think there is a difference. When you are representing your country, I think the thought process might be a little different, as opposed to your club or something like that. So I don’t anticipate it. And if it happens, it happens, we’ll talk about it and everybody will scream and yell, and the game will still be played.
“I hope nobody does.”
A more diplomatic type of shouting match broke out last September after U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe knelt during the anthem ahead of a friendly against Thailand. While Rapinoe had been protesting in the same way with her club team, the Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League, expressing herself in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and the issues he had at heart, doing it in her U.S. uniform caused an uproar.
U.S. Soccer released a statement after the Sept. 15 game, calling it a “privilege” for players like Rapinoe to represent their country and outlining an “expectation” for U.S. team members to stand and honor the flag during the anthem. Rapinoe, an 11-year national team veteran who is openly gay, bluntly defended her actions and said she would give little thought to U.S. Soccer’s desire to stop her.
Five months later, she technically didn’t have a choice, along with the rest of the U.S. men and women.
The conflict appears to run deeply through the U.S. men’s team, too. When the policy was made public in March, veteran defender Geoff Cameron said he would be “furious,” according to USA Today, if one of his teammates did not stand for the anthem. Forward Jozy Altidore disagreed, saying he would not take issue with a teammate who wished to make a statement, while midfielder Alejandro Bedoya argued it should be every player’s right to partake in a “quiet protest.”
Although no U.S. men’s soccer player has hinted at a protest planned for the October games, as anthem statements seep into sports outside of the NFL, could any of them choose this time to break the mold?
“I would be surprised if they did, but I know there are players that are passionate about some of these same causes. Whether they decide to demonstrate that remains to be seen,” said Donovan, who works as a soccer analyst for Fox Sports along with Lalas.
“You know, it’s a little bit disappointing that all of this is going on because sport is usually the place where we kind of forget about all the other stuff and unify. And I hope as a country on both sides or on all sides of these issues, we can get back to that. That would be ideal.”
The U.S. needs points from both of its remaining qualifiers, against Panama Oct. 6 and Trinidad and Tobago Oct. 10, to stay in contention for a spot in next summer’s World Cup.
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