Tuesday, March 7, 2017

This is the Anthem and We Hope you Stand Up

Not so quietly and not so subtly, US Soccer injected themselves into a debate that has been subsuming the entire country since Colin Kaepernick's famous anthem protests last summer: what is proper conduct when the Star-Spangled Banner is played? A now infamous policy code, 604-1, mandates US Soccer players to stand respectfully during the anthem when it is played, obviously in response to Megan Rapinoe's kneeling during the anthem last September as she protested the injustices and inequality in this country in a most American way.

I've already spent many column inches speaking about how protesting during the national anthem is more American than robotically standing up and badly mouthing the words to Francis Scott Key's poem, and so have many others. You'll be surprised to hear my opinion hasn't changed in the last six months, and in fact I've not been standing for the anthem when its been played recently in my own personal protest against injustices, inequality and the like. But since I'm relatively unimportant and not famous outside of a few Twitter bots, my protest means little. When someone of Megan Rapinoe's stature protests in the same way I have however, it becomes a story, and therefore a "problem" or "distraction" away from the game.

Whatever you think of the anthem, and what is respectful to do when it is played, most people will end up agreeing on this, even after a long and wasteful argument: you can go do what you please. Such is the glory of free speech in this country that the government can't tell you what to do or not to do during the anthem. US Soccer, despite what people might think, is a private entity with no connection whatsoever to the government in Washington, meaning they can pass whatever codes and bylaws they wish. They aren't trampling over the 1st Amendment because they are a private entity. That does not mean they shouldn't be criticized for passing an arcane and anti-American rule while on the other hand Tim Howard and Abby Wambach aren't at least publicly sanctioned for making anti-American comments about foreign players.

In this country, especially after 9/11, the national anthem became a staple at every single sporting event, from high school to the pros and back. It is indelible. However, that is not the case everywhere. In England, "God Save the Queen" is not played before almost any sporting event, outside of national team games and the FA Cup Final. Hearing the Star-Spangled before a Tuesday night Carolina Hurricanes-Arizona Coyotes game is almost mechanical at this point, and the meaning of hearing the anthem, the images it invokes and the symbolism it draws upon. So when the anthem plays before a US Soccer match, some of that desired affect is lost because everyone rising for the anthem hears it so often; perhaps too often.

More specifically however, what is this policy designed to accomplish? Most players will stand with their hand over their heart during the anthem anyway without prompting from some code in a rulebook they've never seen, so why even bother? Are they really desperate to win support from a segment of the American populous that isn't likely soccer fans anyway? And what will happen if someone violates the policy? Will they be suspended for important matches if they happen to sit or kneel or don't put their hand over their heart? What would the reaction be then?

When standing for the anthem is such a knee-jerk and innate reaction, it takes concerted thought in order to not do that thanks to heavy cultural appropriation that all of us have experienced throughout our lives. Representing our country means representing the best values that we have, and one of those is the freedom of expression. That means if someone feels the country isn't serving the best interests of everyone, or they themselves feel personally under attack by a government that isn't doing its job, then they have the right to speak out.

The Star Spangled Banner is a projective surface; it means what each individual wants it to mean. It can be a symbol of the best of this country, a time to honor those who have served it with distinction and honor, or can be a reminder that this country is not objectively achieving the goals its founders set out to. But whatever you feel about the anthem, and what is appropriate conduct when it is playing, we can all agree at least on this: you have the ability to do what you want during its playing, whatever the reaction is from others.

US Soccer has the right as a private organization to dictate conduct from those who they employ, however that doesn't mean they cannot be criticized for policies that do not serve their best interests. Whatever the policy is supposed to achieve, and whatever consensus the policy apparently built inside the organization has not achieved the desired affect. This policy codifies something that without even thinking about, most of us do without instruction or prodding.

Whether you think this policy is great, anti-American or anything in that spectrum, it comes of as excessive, unnecessary and over-bearing. This is US Soccer legislating for events that happen as rarely as Haley's Comet blasting through the night sky, and for a purpose that doesn't accomplish much of anything other than empty satisfaction and a chorus of criticism from a vocal segment of their core fanbase.

Representing your country should mean more than robotically standing for a poem and the music it is put to. US Soccer knows this, even as 99% of players, coaches and fans will stand for it unimpeded and automatically.

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