US na­tional an­them ban is not a so­lu­tion

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - Molly McEl­wee

It was the most pow­er­ful im­age of the re­turn­ing Na­tional Women’s Soc­cer League. Casey Short, along with all but one of her Chicago Red Stars team-mates, kneel­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them in sup­port of Black Lives Mat­ter. Over­come with emo­tion, Short was com­forted by Julie Ertz, the United States in­ter­na­tional and fel­low Red Stars player, tears stream­ing down both of their faces. Along­side them was Rachel Hill, her hand rest­ing on Short’s shoul­der, but – con­spic­u­ously – the only player stand­ing in the team line-up.

So much back­lash fol­lowed Hill’s ac­tion – or in­ac­tion – that she was com­pelled to write a state­ment ex­plain­ing that her de­ci­sion not to kneel was “be­cause of what the flag in­her­ently means to my mil­i­tary fam­ily mem­bers”.

The league has since al­tered an­them guide­lines, and play­ers can now stand, kneel or skip the rit­ual al­to­gether – or even re­main in the locker room. While the pol­icy al­lows flex­i­bil­ity for the play­ers, it also leaves them open to pub­lic and po­lit­i­cal scru­tiny.

When Colin Kaeper­nick first re­fused to stand for the an­them dur­ing an NFL pre-sea­son game in Au­gust 2016, I was work­ing in a small news­room in Wash­ing­ton DC. Only a few weeks into liv­ing in the US, I naively did not grasp how po­lar­is­ing a state­ment it was un­til look­ing in great per­plex­ity at the me­dia furore that fol­lowed, as the pres­i­dent and pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates weighed in too.

My Amer­i­can col­leagues quickly ex­plained to me that when an an­them is bound within a beloved mil­i­tary tra­di­tion, and pa­tri­o­tism is so in­grained in the ev­ery­day lives of cit­i­zens from school-age pledges of al­le­giance to the flag, any slight on that sacra­ment is no-go ter­ri­tory. Kaeper­nick was branded un-Amer­i­can, and os­tracised by the sports league with ar­guably the most ties to such tra­di­tions.

Four years on, the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of his protest are still be­ing felt and, quite rightly, it is fi­nally be­ing more widely ac­cepted for what it was: a high­light­ing of po­lice bru­tal­ity and racism against African Amer­i­cans, and in no way dis­re­spect­ful of the mil­i­tary.

Af­ter Black Lives Mat­ter protests erupted world­wide last month, fol­low­ing the death of Ge­orge

It would send out the wrong mes­sage and re­move play­ers’ chance to protest

Floyd at the hands of the po­lice, thou­sands have taken a knee on city streets in sol­i­dar­ity. Pub­lic pres­sure has even forced teams to re­assess their poli­cies, with the United States Soc­cer Fed­er­a­tion over­turn­ing a 2017 ban on play­ers kneel­ing, a rule im­posed af­ter Me­gan Rapi­noe be­came one of the first ath­letes to join Kaeper­nick’s protest.

On June 27, the NWSL be­came the first team sports league to re­turn to the field in the US since coro­n­avirus halted other ma­jor sched­ules. The open­ing game at­tracted the league’s big­gest tele­vi­sion au­di­ence yet, 572,000 in the US alone, but that priv­i­lege also ex­posed the NWSL and its play­ers to an un­fa­mil­iar level of crit­i­cism.

Ram­pant de­bate around whether play­ers would take a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them, in sup­port of Black Lives Mat­ter, has dom­i­nated much of the cov­er­age. The ma­jor­ity of play­ers knelt, in­clud­ing England in­ter­na­tional Jodie Tay­lor, but some, like Hill, con­tin­ued to stand, hand on heart.

Such is the ap­par­ent pres­sure on ath­letes, and the trauma they are said to be ex­pe­ri­enc­ing, that some want no an­them at all. Ma­jor League Soc­cer is re­turn­ing be­hind closed doors to­mor­row with­out the an­them, for ex­am­ple.

Play­ing the an­them for do­mes­tic sport has al­ways seemed out of place so un­der usual cir­cum­stances I would agree with the move. How­ever, omit­ting the an­them now would send the wrong mes­sage, and the NWSL and any league that pur­ports to want to con­tinue the con­ver­sa­tion around racial in­equal­ity should not re­move play­ers’ op­por­tu­nity to protest.

Mak­ing a very pub­lic per­sonal de­ci­sion of this kind ahead of a com­pet­i­tive match is prob­a­bly not the most com­fort­able of po­si­tions for play­ers. But the point be­ing made by Black Lives Mat­ter ac­tivists is that to be anti-racist, one must en­dure un­com­fort­able con­ver­sa­tions and face hard truths.

Amer­i­can player Crys­tal Dunn put it best this week: “This re­ally comes down to what you truly be­lieve and how you feel. I know it’s an un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tion for many peo­ple, but some­times you have to do the un­com­fort­able things to make the big­gest im­pact.”

Is kneel­ing dis­tract­ing from the play on the field? Yes, of course it is, and that is the point – just ask Kaeper­nick. To scrap the an­them would be to avoid an is­sue that de­serves to be front and cen­tre.

Emo­tional: Casey Short (cen­tre) is com­forted by Julie Ertz, while Rachel Hill chooses to stand be­fore the game against Wash­ing­ton

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