How the First U.S. Sports Leagues Back Plan to Handle the National Anthem

The USA's first major sports leagues back in action amid the coronavirus pandemic return at a unique time in the country's history. Here's how they'll handle a hot-button topic.
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NWSL and MLS are in a unique position, in that they stand to become the first major professional sports leagues that return to action in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down.

The NWSL will be first, with a Challenge Cup tournament for its nine teams in Utah that kicks off June 27. MLS will follow soon after, with a league-wide competition in Orlando to be held from July 8 to Aug. 11.

Their returns at a time when the USA is clamoring for live sports are notable enough in their own right, but they'll be occurring amid the backdrop of a country that's on edge. The killing of George Floyd, who died late last month in police custody in Minneapolis when officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck, represents the exact kind of police brutality against Black people that Colin Kaepernick famously protested as an NFL quarterback in 2016. The symmetry isn't hard to spot, with Kaepernick also taking a knee–only his was to peacefully protest during the playing of the national anthem, when it's otherwise customary to stand.

Since Floyd's killing, the country has featured an abundance of protests and demonstrations, and a number of athletes have voiced their feelings, shared their stories and demanded change. Perhaps no group did so in a more powerful manner than one featuring a number of U.S. national team players past and present and other athletes, with Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, DaMarcus Beasley and a host of others speaking out in a powerful, graphic video whose theme was "Enough is Enough."

In light of these recent events, which include New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees's widely criticized initial comments regarding his beliefs on whether players should stand for the national anthem and the NFL's response to an impassioned plea by its players, it's natural to wonder what the first U.S. leagues back after the coronavirus-induced shutdown may look like as they relate to the pregame custom.

In 2016 and 2017, at the height of the anthem protests across U.S. sports, NWSL and MLS were both supportive of athletes exercising their right to peacefully protest. That was in contrast to the policy set forth at the time by U.S. Soccer, which was adamant that players be respectful of the flag and anthem and stand. The main difference, of course, was a matter of representing a club vs. representing a country.

Nashville SC stands for the national anthem at an MLS game

At the time, NWSL's stance was: "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. 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."

Meanwhile, MLS's stance was: “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.”

Neither of those stances has changed, officials in both leagues have said. Players in NWSL and MLS will continue to have the ability to approach the anthem as they would like without fear of reprimand, even if the leagues continue to "encourage" players to stand.

An NWSL official told Sports Illustrated that it continues to support its players and has "no policy against the players demonstrating in any way during the anthem," while also adding that "with everything going on, we can all expect that the players will recognize their support [of social justice causes] in some way."

MLS released a new statement to reiterate its initial stance, saying on Tuesday: “While fostering an environment of diversity, equality and inclusion, Major League Soccer stands by the ideals of freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest that are the hallmarks of the United States and Canada. If players or staff decide to stand, kneel or otherwise exercise their right to peaceful protest during the playing of the National Anthems before league games, we support them.”

That said, fans will only see one of those statements put into practice in the upcoming tournaments. NWSL does currently intend to play the anthem before its matches, a league official told Sports Illustrated, despite no fans being present at the closed-door, made-for-TV/streaming-on-your-device event. It will be up to the league and its new broadcast partner, CBS, whether it's shown to viewers on TV and/or on its streaming service, CBS All Access.

MLS, however, won't have the anthem played at its matches in Orlando. With no fans present and teams not lining up prior to the games, MLS commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday that the league "didn't see that it would be appropriate."

To be clear, there has been only one public indication as of yet from any of the players involved, male or female, that they plan to kneel if the opportunity came up, and that is from Washington Spirit rookie Kaiya McCullough. Megan Rapinoe, who famously backed Kaepernick's protest with ones of her own in NWSL and with the U.S. women's national team—before U.S. Soccer's official anthem policy was instituted—will reportedly sit out the Challenge Cup. 

Megan Rapinoe kneels for the anthem at a 2016 U.S. women's national team game

The issue of the flag as a peaceful protest symbol for something far greater won't be going away, whether it's soccer-specific or in other sports. U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen alluded to such in recent comments on social media, and while there's no definitive timeframe for national teams to return to action—September is the next FIFA international window, but the global soccer calendar has been thrown into disarray and remains in flux—U.S. Soccer's board of directors has voted to repeal what was in place. 

That policy 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." It was discussed and voted on at a meeting of the board of directors this past Tuesday following a conversation at the staff level last Friday initiated by new CEO Will Wilson and president Cindy Parlow Cone, according to a U.S. Soccer spokesperson. That meeting–and the subsequent decision to bring repealing the anthem up for a vote–preceded strong condemnation from the U.S. women's national team players association and the U.S. Soccer Athlete Council, an influential voting bloc within the federation.

Players union representatives for both the men and women recently said that it was never negotiated with their players and punishments couldn't have technically been enforced at the senior national team level anyway, but the policy being in place at all clearly made a statement that not all were proud to represent.

"If I'm going to wear the U.S. flag, I need to know that it stands for something worth defending," Steffen, a former Columbus Crew starter currently on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf from Man City, wrote. "I need to know that my country supports black lives. That our leaders see us. That they hear us. I am proud to defend my nation; all I ask is that my nation also defends me."

It appears that his federation, his former league and its women's counterpart will.