UPDATE: The ban was officially repealed on June 10. Here’s our story.
The U.S. Soccer Federation is ready to drop a ban on players’ kneeling during the playing of the national anthem that was imposed three years ago after Megan Rapinoe knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.
Ahead of a U.S. Soccer’ board of directors conference call Tuesday, board member Steve Malik — owner of the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage and USL’s North Carolina FC — told The Inquirer that he wants the ban repealed. The governing body’s Athlete Council also called for a repeal in a statement.
"Being on the right side of history on this thing makes a lot of sense to me,” Malik said.
The move to drop the ban is undoubtedly a response to the national outcry over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other African-Americans. Malik hopes American soccer’s leaders can help lead the way in pushing for reform.
“I think what’s happening in our country right now is an opportunity to really address systemic problems that have been there a long time,” Malik said. “I think we all realize that we certainly have to allow, and frankly support, efforts to bring some justice to this equation. … While this is the time that soccer has an opportunity to step up and be part of the solution, we all in our own individual way can contribute to that.”
The ban was adopted in February 2017 by the board after Megan Rapinoe knelt during the playing of the anthem at two U.S. women’s team games in September 2016.
At the time, U.S. Soccer said in a statement: “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.”
That expectation became a formal policy that said: “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.”
In March 2017, the policy was ratified by U.S. Soccer’s membership at the governing body’s annual general meeting — an assembly of players, professional league executives, and leaders of youth and adult amateur soccer leagues from across the nation.
The president at the time, Sunil Gulati, told the AGM that the board approved the rule unanimously, though there’s no formal roll call in the board minutes.
As the text of the policy was displayed on a video screen in the meeting hall, Gulati said, “I don’t think I need to explain that.” According to a transcript published by U.S. Soccer, the remark was met with applause.
“I was asked yesterday at the Athlete Council meeting what if a player doesn’t, and, you know, I didn’t have the right answer there,” Gulati said. “And I think the right answer is, I hope we never have to confront that situation. So that is the new policy.”
Gulati then asked for a motion to approve from the floor, and got it. There were no recorded objections, and the motion passed by acclamation.
Rapinoe said she wouldn’t fight the ban. She instead chose to not sing the anthem while standing and has continued that stance. She also wasn’t named to U.S. teams from October 2016 through March 2017. Though she was recovering from injuries at the time, there was widespread speculation about whether the timing of her statement and her return were coincidental.
No U.S. player has ever been formally sanctioned for violating the rule. BuzzFeed News reported Monday that at the time the rule was implemented, U.S. Soccer officials told the men’s national team players’ union that they wanted to impose a three-game suspension for a first offense and 12 months for a second offense. The punishments were never codified.
In early 2018, Gulati stepped down from the presidency after the U.S. men failed to qualify for that year’s World Cup. His successor, former vice president Carlos Cordeiro, resigned this March after U.S. Soccer’s lawyers used sexist language in a filing in the U.S. women’s players’ equal pay lawsuit.
During last week’s nationwide protests, U.S. Soccer posted a short statement on its social media accounts that said “One Nation. One Team. United Against Racism.” Fans promptly delivered a torrent of replies citing Rapinoe and the kneeling ban.
ESPN reported that the move to drop the ban came at the urging of new president Cindy Parlow Cone, who succeeded Cordeiro. Cone, who won two Olympics and a World Cup as a player. was on the board as an Athlete Council member when the ban was passed.
Since then, she has gotten to know Malik well as a director in North Carolina FC’s youth program.
“I do think that when you’ve had the benefit that comes from playing with people of every background, that it helps setting up your heart and your head,” Malik said. “It’s a new day with her leadership at the Federation, and I think she’s trying to step forward and look to the future in a lot of positive ways — and that [repealing the ban] is one of them.”
Of the 12 board members who approved the ban, seven are no longer there. The five who remain are Cone; Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber; Athlete Council chair Chris Ahrens; U.S. Adult Soccer Association president John Motta; and U.S. Youth Soccer association vice chair Tim Turney.
The Athlete Council’s statement Monday called on U.S. Soccer to “apologize and offer an admission of wrongdoing,” and “develop a plan with action items focused on anti-racism that will be shared publicly with its athletes, key stakeholders, and fans.” It also called on U.S. Soccer’s membership to “join us in our quest to allow an athlete to peacefully protest” by ratifying the change at the next AGM.
It did not, however, say anything about the Council’s involvement in passing the ban at the time.
Both the U.S. men’s and women’s players’ unions issued statements demanding an end to the ban and an apology from U.S. Soccer. The women’s union specifically asked for “an apology to our Black players and supporters," and the men’s union called the ban “an ill-advised and insensitive political statement.”