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Club vs. Country Distinction Evident in National Anthem Stance Across U.S. Soccer

Protesting by kneeling or sitting out during the national anthem is viewed quite differently in U.S. Soccer circles, depending on whether a player is representing his or her club or national team.

The national debate surrounding the anthem, the flag and the definition of patriotism has made its way to American soccer’s doorstep. No MLS player has conducted a pregame protest so far (there are eight league matches Wednesday evening), although several have spoken out. The women’s game already is involved thanks in large part to USA and Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe, while U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena—whose squad faces a pair of massive World Cup qualifiers next month—discussed the issue and the U.S. Soccer Federation’s “stand respectfully” policy Tuesday night in New York.

Soccer is the most global of games and throughout the world, national anthems typically are played only when national teams take the field. But it’s also is an American game, with more than a century of history on U.S. soil. And so MLS, NASL, USL and NWSL—the four pro circuits now operating in the USA and Canada—have followed continental custom since day one and played the anthem before each match.

Although the NWSL doesn’t attract as much attention as the national teams or MLS, Rapinoe has been the soccer face of the protest movement launched by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick since she took a knee before a league game in September 2016. A couple weeks later, Rapinoe kneeled during the anthem before a women’s national team match in Columbus, prompting U.S. Soccer to release a statement that concluded, “As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.”

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The USSF doubled down this February, adopting an official policy that reads, “All persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented.”

At that time, U.S. women’s coach Jill Ellis said, “I've always felt that that should be what we do, to honor the country, have the pride of putting on the national team jersey. I said that previously. I think that should be the expectation. That’s our workplace out there, and I think we should represent ourselves and our country. So yeah, I'm pleased with [the policy].”

Speaking Tuesday in New York City, Arena—who’s coached more internationals than any U.S. manager—reportedly said he didn’t think he’d have to deal with protesting players before the do-or-die games against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago.

“We’ve got enough to deal with on October 6 besides kneeling and stuff,” he said.

Like others in American soccer, Arena appeared to draw a distinction between playing for club and playing for country.

Overall, he said, recent “demonstrations by the players are appropriate.” But, he added, “the national team is different. You don’t have to play in the national team. You can choose not to play. Those guys are professionals in their club teams. That’s their jobs. They have to be there. Our guys don’t have to be.”

When asked what his reaction might be if a U.S. international took a knee, the often-sardonic Arena said, “Well, what do you think I should do then? Right then and there, take him off? Burn a few substitutions? If four guys do it, we’re screwed …. If we need to discuss it, we’ll discuss it. But I don’t think that’s an issue we’re going to deal with.”

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MLS and the other men's domestic pro leagues haven’t had to deal with it either, but the current climate has forced them to prepare. MLS commissioner Don Garber, who’s a member of U.S. Soccer’s board, agreed with the federation’s national team policy. In February, he said, “We felt very strongly that if you are given the honor of being called up to play for your country, and you're going to wear our flag on your chest, you should stand for the national anthem … And if you don't want to do that, you don't have to accept the call up.”

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But like Arena, Garber draws the club-country distinction. He sent a memo to all MLS league and team personnel on Tuesday that contained language similar to the statement subsequently released by the league.

That statement read, “The march of players, officials and children into our stadiums and singing of the anthem has been a pre-match tradition since our first game in 1996. The national anthem provides our clubs and fans an important and time-honored opportunity to salute our country and stand up for its principles, whether in the United States or in Canada. At the same time, freedom of speech—and the right to peaceful protest—are the hallmarks of both countries. Though we encourage our players to stand during the national anthem, we respect and support their right to express their personal beliefs.”

The NWSL hadn't issued a statement before Rapinoe continued her protest prior to last weekend's game between the Reign and FC Kansas City at Seattle's Memorial Stadium, where nine players opted to remain in the tunnel instead of standing on the field for the anthem. Among those joining Rapinoe were current or former U.S. women’s national members Becky Sauerbrunn (a co-captain), Sydney Leroux and Yael Averbuch and Canadian international Diana Matheson. On Wednesday afternoon, the NWSL acknowledged its players' rights while stressing the importance of the anthem, which it called "an important part of the NWSL’s pre-match ceremony."

The NWSL said, "The national anthem is an opportunity to celebrate our country’s freedom while honoring the many sacrifices borne by the men and women who have done so much to protect that freedom," adding, "We will continue to encourage our players to participate in honoring our nation during the national anthem and we support the right of everyone in our league to exercise their right to peacefully protest."

President Donald Trump’s repeated condemnation of anthem protesters could’ve turned Seattle into a major battleground, but it appears the MLS champion Sounders won’t have to enter the fray (at least officially). Although Barack Obama welcomed MLS Cup winners to the White House from 2008 through 2014 (the 2015 champ Portland Timbers were never able to work out a visit), Trump hasn’t extended an invitation to the Sounders. More recent league champions, the Golden State Warriors (no thanks) and Pittsburgh Penguins (we’re on our way), were invited and come down on opposite sides of the issue.

Several Sounders have spoken out, however. Among them is goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the Swiss-born MLS Cup hero who become a U.S. citizen in June. He told reporters this week that, “I strongly disagree with [Trump] even bringing it up. There are enough important topics for him to focus on right now—the relief in Puerto Rico [or] North Korea. There’s so many things he could choose to put his energy toward and he chooses to be divisive and negative about people who are exercising their rights to protest in a peaceful way and speak their minds. Nothing positive comes from it, really.”

Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said, “I think our president should be sticking to presidential duties. I don’t think he has to dabble into what players can say … It’s freedom of speech. I respect the flag, a lot, and if any of my players were strong enough in their opinion that they wanted to do something I would say it’s their choice. I think I would support them.”

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The MLS Players Union issued a statement condemning Trump for his decision to “single out certain professional athletes and call for their termination of employment.” The MLSPU added, “All players have every right to exercise their Constitutional rights and we will do everything in our power to defend those rights when they are challenged.”

Based on the MLS statement and the NWSL’s inaction, it doesn’t appear those rights will be challenged at the league level. The NASL and USL released similar declarations Wednesday. The NASL's read, in part, “The global nature of the sport necessitates support for a diverse set of opinions and thoughts. We expect our players, coaches, and staff members to act with respect towards that diversity at all times, but we do not prohibit individuals from expressing their own views so long as they do so in a respectful manner that does not disrupt the game.”

Stressing that "politics and professional sports have often crossed paths," the USL said it was an "open, welcoming and inclusive league...with a focus on fairness and equality." As such, the league said it "support[s] the First Amendment rights afforded by the Constitution of the United States for our members, players and staff."

The NASL has one game scheduled Wednesday, in Jacksonville, while the USL has 12 teams in action.

So far, Trump’s demand that NFL owners discipline protesting players appears to have fallen on deaf ears, which is significant since there are several MLS investors with NFL ties. Arthur Blank, Robert Kraft, Clark Hunt and Stan Kroenke all have teams in both leagues and there are others in MLS with ties to different pro leagues. Blank, who owns the Falcons and Atlanta United, linked arms with his NFL players during Sunday’s anthem and told reporters, "It's unfortunate the president chose to go in that direction and speak out the way he has.” Blank said he was, ”certainly supportive of their right to express freedom of speech.”

New England Patriots and Revolution owner Kraft, a notable Trump supporter, issued a statement that read in part, “I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president …. Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”