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U.S. Soccer has not altered its controversial policy that requires national team players to stand for the American national anthem, a federation spokesman confirmed Tuesday afternoon.
But MLS, the U.S.’s top professional league, and its players union have both backed players’ freedom of expression and right to peacefully protest. MLS commissioner Don Garber issued a league-wide memo Tuesday in support of players’ “right to express their personal beliefs.”
No MLS players has ever knelt or sat during either the American or Canadian national anthem before a league match, but the issue became a topic of public discussion in American sports after President Donald Trump explicitly criticized NFL players last Friday. Dozens of NFL players protested this past Sunday, while Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel for the anthem, and several NBA stars spoke out against Trump.
The issue first came to light when Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem over a year ago to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Soon after his protest began, U.S. women’s national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe knelt before an NWSL game in solidarity with Kaepernick.
Rapinoe and national team teammates Becky Sauerbrunn and Sydney Leroux were among nine players who stayed in the locker room during the anthem before Sunday night’s NWSL game between FC Kansas City and the Seattle Reign.
U.S. Soccer’s policy was passed by USSF’s board of directors this past February, in part in response to Rapinoe’s protests. Rapinoe had knelt for the anthem before national team games as well, and had explained her decision in an article on the Players’ Tribune.
But after Rapinoe knelt for the first time in a U.S. jersey before a September friendly against Thailand, U.S. Soccer issued an official statement condemning her protest.
“Representing your country is a privilege and honor for any player or coach that is associated with U.S. Soccer’s National Team. Therefore, our national anthem has particular significance for U.S. Soccer,” the statement read. “In front of national and often global audiences, the playing of our national anthem is an opportunity for our Men’s and Women’s National Team players and coaches to reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country. 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.”
Policy 604-1, instituted four months later, 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.”
Rapinoe accepted the policy, and has not knelt for the anthem before a national team game since it was put in place.
But the policy does not apply to any domestic league under USSF’s jurisdiction. Garber issued the memo Tuesday in support of players’ right to protest, should any choose to.
“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 memo read. “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 MLS Players Union had previously released a statement that called Trump’s comments “jarring and disappointing”:
However, U.S. Soccer’s policy will apply soon when the U.S. men’s national team gathers for two crucial World Cup qualifiers, first on Oct. 6 against Panama in Orlando, and then on Oct. 10 in Trinidad and Tobago.
Men’s national team manager Bruce Arena was asked on Tuesday night about protests during the anthem. Here is the answer he gave:
The women’s national team also has two friendlies against South Korea later in August, and two more against Canada in November.
No men’s or women’s national team player has refused to stand for the anthem since the policy was adopted. It is unclear what the punishment would be for any player who did choose to kneel or sit.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.