US national anthem ban is not a solution
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