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It wasn’t long after the death of George Floyd that the decision-makers at the US Soccer Federation realized they needed to make some changes – and one change was immediately obvious.
Years earlier, the federation had issued an edict requiring national team players to stand during the national anthem. It was targeted at Megan Rapinoe, who had been kneeling to protest systemic racism, and the federation framed its new policy as minimizing distractions and showing respect for the flag.
But in the aftermath of Floyd’s death last summer, even many US Soccer board members who had originally voted in favor of the anthem requirement felt they had missed the point. They failed to see what Rapinoe was trying to highlight all along.
And so, about two weeks after Floyd’s death, new US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone apologized to Rapinoe and asked the USWNT star to speak to the board about the policy.
“What I was asking them was: ‘Where are we going? Where is the world going? What does this rule say to our black players and our black fans?’” Rapinoe recalled to the Guardian. “It was great to be able to have that open line of communication and get to speak to the board directly because that’s not something that has happened before at all to my knowledge.”
The board voted to repeal the policy last summer and the federation formally apologized, but the issue won’t officially be settled until Saturday, when the rest of US Soccer’s membership body will vote at its annual general meeting to affirm the repeal.
If that does happen, which insiders tell the Guardian is likely but not guaranteed, it will signal a remarkable turnaround from five years ago. When the policy was first introduced at US Soccer’s 2017 annual meeting, the voting membership, which is overwhelmingly white and male, didn’t simply vote in favor of it – they gave it an enthusiastic standing ovation.
In some ways that shift in tone around US Soccer reflects a larger change in America. The stand-or-kneel debate felt different after the deaths of Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. For many, kneeling during the national anthem now looks less like disrespect for the flag and more like an acknowledgement that the American experience isn’t the same for everyone.
But those connected to US Soccer say it’s not only that – they cite a deliberate effort from its new leadership to right its past wrongs. Board members and staffers tell the Guardian they feel a difference in not just tone, but in action since Parlow Cone took over one year ago.
After all, repealing the anthem policy wasn’t going to be popular. The board had passed the rule in 2017 unanimously, and Parlow Cone admits she knew its repeal wouldn’t be unanimous. After hearing from US Soccer’s non-white employees on an all-staff Zoom call, however, she felt she had to do it. That call, she says, was “an awakening”.
“Having been a member of the national team, I never fully understood the struggles that my black and brown teammates went through on a daily basis because we never talked about it,” says Parlow Cone, who played in two World Cups for the USWNT. “For me personally, it was a moment where I was like, ‘OK, it’s time for me to be a better teammate. I’m not on that team anymore, so what can I do now?”
“I knew it was going to be a hard conversation,” she adds of the repeal. “I knew that it was very going to be very divisive, not only within the board but publicly – but I felt like it was the right thing to do.”
To be sure, the anthem policy is not the most important issue facing US Soccer.
If the federation is really serious about diversity and inclusion, there are better ways to make a lasting, tangible impact, including addressing its lack of diversity among its own staff and coaches. The federation says that is happening, and its new DEI Council is leading the way. But until US Soccer can point to concrete improvements, the anthem policy may serve as the best proxy to understand how US Soccer is evolving.
To that end, there’s a clear contrast between how the policy was handled five years ago compared to now.
In 2017, US Soccer’s board, which was led by then-president Sunil Gulati, didn’t speak to any black people about the issue, nor did anyone from the federation speak to Rapinoe, the only player kneeling at the time. “I felt like, I’m the one who’s kneeling, so at least we should have a conversation about this going forward, but there was nothing,” Rapinoe says, adding she only found out about the standing requirement after it had been approved.
In weighing the repeal, however, the board spoke to Rapinoe, former USMNT defender DaMarcus Beasley, who is black, and a member of the US men’s Paralympic team who had served in the military. Board members now say that was the sort of dialogue that was missing 2017.
Critics may be skeptical that anything has really changed at US Soccer though, and they can point to Parlow Cone sitting on the board during the passage of the new anthem policy and other past controversies as well. But as a rank-and-file board – an unpaid volunteer that participates in board meetings a few times per year – she was hardly in a position of influence.
Now that Parlow Cone is calling the shots after being unexpectedly thrust into the presidency by Carlos Cordeiro’s forced resignation, board members and staffers tell the Guardian she’s different than the power-broker types who went out of their way to campaign for the presidency.
Even Rapinoe is “hesitantly” optimistic about change at US Soccer, but she says she still needs to see more. The repeal is not the end of the work US Soccer needs to do – it’s only the beginning.
“It’s absolutely a positive step moving forward,” Rapinoe says of the repeal. “In the end, the willingness to apologize to their black players, fans and media alike, to say it was wrong and repeal the ban, to say, ‘We have to do better; we realize that and we will commit to doing better going forward’ – I think that’s all you can ask for.”
Rapinoe adds: “In terms of racial equality, yes, they’ve done a good job this year, but obviously they had a lot to pivot from. I think the board and the leadership is looking very different – that’s becoming quite apparent. We just need to keep that energy and keep it a focus.”
Now the question turns to what happens Saturday.
To affirm the repeal, all that’s needed is simple majority vote from US Soccer’s membership representatives, which cover all levels of soccer in all 50 states. Not everyone who cheered for the protest ban five years ago is likely to be converted. But Parlow Cone is hoping enough will be.
“I led this charge and I think it’s past time to do it, but I do also have an understanding that this remains a very divisive issue in our country and among our membership,” she says. “I’m hoping that, like me, others have been more educated on the topic and want to give the athletes the right to kneel if they choose.”
In some ways, it’s a bit of a moot issue.
Ever since US Soccer’s board voted to repeal the anthem policy last summer, many USWNT players have chosen to kneel before games. Whether US Soccer’s membership affirms the repeal Saturday or not, the federation has made it clear it won’t punish players who kneel.
When the USWNT faced Argentina on Wednesday in the SheBelieves Cup finale, Rapinoe stood – by choice – for the first time in years, and all her teammates did the same. As Crystal Dunn, who is black, put it: “We are ready to move past the protesting phase and move into putting all of the talk into actual work.”
But for Rapinoe, the final repeal remains important.
“You know, at the annual general meeting, it’s not necessarily just Cindy or just the board – these are the people that are close to the kids and in the youth programs and spreading the US Soccer Federation message countrywide. That’s not good if we have a bunch of people who are not respecting people’s right to protest, first of all, and then don’t really respect the reason that people are protesting.
“That’s a massive problem for me personally. I think it’s hugely important that it’s repealed and it’s off the books. Otherwise, that’s a huge stain on the books of US Soccer.”