U.S. Soccer, the governing body of soccer (football) in the United States, finally contributed a sense of reason to the chaos—and the resultant divisions—that have been rampant in American society recently. On 4 March 2017 it was reported that U.S. Soccer announced that “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”. Some media outlets, such as Rolling Stone, connected this decision to U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe’s decision to kneel before an international football game in solidarity with American footballer Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial inequality in the United States (a subject I have written on before).
Megan Rapinoe’s Decision to Kneel For the National Anthem Prompts a Policy Change. Image Courtesy Of: http://www.rollingstone.com/sports/us-soccer-makes-players-stand-for-national-anthem-w470611
U.S. Soccer’s New Bylaws. Image Courtesy Of: https://twitter.com/stuholden/status/838109929802063872
Personally, I believe that the U.S. Soccer decision is timely in that it does two important things: 1) It restores a semblance of reason to a confused populace by re-enforcing the positive aspects of nationalism and 2) it sends a message to the entitled masses that it is a privilege and honor to represent one’s country in international competition. In regards to the first accomplishment, it is useful to quote from Anthony Smith’s Nationalism and Modernism (1998):
It is because we know that our interests, indeed our very identities and survival, are bound up with the nation, that we feel such devotion to the nation and are prepared to make such sacrifices for it when it is in danger […] The concept of the nation, then, is not only an abstraction and invention, as is so often claimed. It is also felt, and felt passionately, as something very real, a concrete community, in which we may find some assurance of our own identity and even, through our descendants, of our immortality.
(Smith, 1998: 140).
Smith’s quote is useful in this context insofar as it recognizes the importance of “the nation” in modern society beyond the post-modern interpretation of the nation as either “abstraction” or “invention”; for some it is indeed very real and should—therefore—afford a modicum of respect. In the era of late-stage (or “extreme”) capitalism, the nation is one of the few entities that can bring together the disparate members of modern society beneath one unified conception and U.S. Soccer’s move emphasizes the importance of national identity along these lines. Regardless of our nationality, we do not need to think of our nation as superior to other nations; rather we must only acknowledge that the nation—by providing a semblance of shared culture and experience—has a use in the modern age. Until we find a better way to organize our lives and provide vital services like education and law enforcement, there is no alternative to the nation-state. Therefore, it would be more logical to perfect the workings of the nation-state, rather than reject it wholesale.
As far as the second result of U.S. Soccer’s announcement, it is clear that this move sends a message to current and perspective players alike that playing for one’s nation is a privilege; the least one can do is stand up and honor this privilege. Standing might be seen as an inconvenience to some, but the very fact that they are playing for their country renders all comparisons to the protest of Mr. Kaepernick (who plays for a private entity, the San Francisco 49ers) baseless. Since the nation is (not yet anyway) a private company, there can be little comparison.
Some soccer celebrities in the United States came out in support of U.S. Soccer’s decision. The head coach of the US Men’s National Team Bruce Arena said “I’m very supportive of that policy. I think players should stand for the national anthem. I think representing your country is one of the greatest honors a player or coach can have. That would be my expectations of the players as well”. Goalkeeper Tim Howard, famous for his heroics in the 2014 World Cup that earned the moniker “Department of Defense”, also came out in favor of the policy saying “I’m a firm believer that you should stand and respect the anthem and the flag, but that’s Tim Howard speaking. I don’t speak for anybody else. That’s what I believe.” Howard added “U.S. Soccer is an organization who are allowed to make rules. Listen, I think if you’re going to wear the shirt, if it’s OK to play for the U.S. then surely it’s OK to stand for its anthem as well. Yeah, I’m OK with it”. The fact that the Denver Post felt the need to underline Mr. Howard’s stance may have been because he is African-American; it is an unfortunate recognition of a flaw in modern society (and also Sociology) which seems to posit that all members of particular demographic groups should think the same thing. For me, such thought processes are inherently racist but that is just one reason (among many) that I am merely a marginal sociologist.
The Department of Defense. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/302867143665717538/
The strongest supporter of U.S. Soccer’s policy was former star (and current pundit) Alexi Lalas who went so far as to suggest that players should also be made to sing the national anthem:
U.S. Soccer has the right to do this. The question is, is it the right thing to do, and I say 100 percent. It is a privilege, it is an honor, it is a choice to represent your country, and it comes with responsibilities and expectations. And I know nowadays sometimes the national anthem is viewed as background noise or as a reminder to some about the problems, the real problems, that we have as a country. But I look at is as a unique moment, when we come together, we honor and we celebrate being citizens of the greatest country in the world, and I think it is a tradition that should be preserved.
I have been in stadiums where I stood for the anthem and everybody has booed, where flags have been burned, where I have been called every name in the book. I have never served in the military, I have represented my country on the field, and I know that pales in comparison to the men and women in our armed forces that serve our country and some that paid that ultimate price.
So damn right I am going to stand, I’m going to put my hand over my heart and I’m going to sing. And I believe that all U.S. national team players should be required to do that. Just because we live in the land of the free doesn’t mean that we are free to do anything that we want. [Author’s Note: Emphasis added].
Mr. Lalas’ Iconoclastic Look. Image Courtesy Of: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/302867143665717538/
While Mr. Lalas’ views may be seen as “extreme”, he raises an important point in his last sentence when he discusses the “freedom” of the purported “land of the free”. As nationalism scholar Anthony Smith notes, nations that consist of immigrant populations (like Canada, Australia, and the United States) encourage “a ‘plural’ conception of the nation, which accepts, and even celebrates, ethnic and cultural diversity within an overarching political, legal, and linguistic national identity” (Smith, 1998: 194; emphasis added). While celebrating ethnic and cultural diversity is certainly important—and indeed laudable—such a policy can only be done within overarching frameworks related to national identity. Without the glue of some sort of national identity—one that is civic and inclusive in nature—the raison d’etre of nations based on immigrant populations (like the United States) is threatened. It is important to recognize the difference (one that many Sociologists I have spoken to fail to make) between respecting cultural and ethnic plurality and rejecting an overarching national identity; these two need not be tied together. Collective nationalism and individual cultural identity need not be mutually exclusive, especially in a country like the United States where a civic model of nationalism is stressed.
Of course, these nuances were not recognized by many pundits who responded to U.S. Soccer’s new bylaws. George Quraishi of The Lowell Sun made the claim that U.S. Soccer was—somehow—siding against the Black Lives Matter movement: “What interests me about the unanimous decision by U.S. Soccer’s board of directors is that it verbalized a message that the soccer establishment has been sending to black Americans for decades: This sport is not for you”. The most shocking thing about Mr. Quraishi’s (I am sure well-meaning) comments here is that they only serve to exacerbate the divide between Black and White Americans. Could it be that, in requiring players to stand for the national anthem, U.S. Soccer was actually trying to bridge the gap between Americans? And could it be that articles like Mr. Quraishi’s are actually perpetuating divides between Americans, by reading into things that are not there (after all, the Black Lives Matter movement was not mentioned in U.S. Soccer’s announcement)? This is understandably a contested subject, but it is the responsibility of all Americans to face these kinds of hard questions if we are to build a functioning society going forward; a society built not on divisions and recriminations but unity and mutual empathy.
Unfortunately, other mainstream sports media outlets in the United States followed Mr. Quraishi’s line. Some pundits from Sports Illustrated claimed that the new policy was “almost un-American” and “pretty tone-deaf”, while ESPN (predictably) slammed the policy calling it both “anti-American” and “anti-soccer”. Chris Jones’ article is exemplary of the faults that so much of U.S. news media has succumbed to recently: it often serves to divide more than it unites. Take this passage as an example:
Maybe the powers that be thought that by making this little show, they could appeal to a previously untapped audience of self-appointed super patriots.
That same audience would have a new favorite player in USMNT defender Geoff Cameron, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban. U.S. Soccer didn’t care to censure him for making that particular political statement, even though it put him at odds with several members of the team, including captain Michael Bradley.
(And no, Cameron shouldn’t have been punished. Freedom of expression does not mean “only expression I like.”)
Despite Mr. Jones’ disclaimer in the last line, he is still effectively calling out a player (Geoff Cameron) in public for expressing an opinion that disagrees with his own. This is absurd, and can be described as poor journalism at best. As public intellectuals (or perhaps, “intellectuals”) I hold journalists to higher standards than those that Mr. Jones met in his piece.
In order to tie this sports-based piece to politics, it is useful to quote a piece from a Breitbart article written by Dylan Gwinn, which quotes Mr. Jones’ piece in the first paragraph:
“More importantly, nobody can make a really solid, rational argument for why players must stand respectfully or otherwise, at least one that isn’t instantly invalidated by a photograph of Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos and their raised fists in 1968.”
While no one would say our current day and age is without difficulty, it’s definitely not 1968 either. So that could be an argument couldn’t it? No early, post-segregation environment, no Vietnam War. Is poverty still an issue for millions of black people in America? Sure, but maybe it would be more instructive to go ask former President Obama why he focused on redistribution during his eight years in office?
According to the Washington Times, under Obama the black labor force participation rate fell from 63.2% in 2009 to 61.2% in July of last year, in addition to black home ownership falling from 46.1% in 2009 to just 41.7% in July of last year.
Maybe addressing that, would be more productive than focusing on how awesome it is to kneel at a soccer game?
While I do not make claims for the truthfulness of The Washington Times or Breitbart, I do believe that it is important to actually address real issues, one of which is the poverty of Black Americans. By missing this point—and focusing so much on the criticism of smaller issues that could be beneficial in terms of creating a semblance of unity (like U.S. Soccer’s new policy)—journalists like Chris Jones only serve to pat themselves on the back in the short term while furthering division in the long term.
Judging by Tommie Smith’s words, I believe that both Mr. Smith and John Carlos had very different motivations for their protest in 1968. A piece from Time Magazine quotes Tommie Smith from an HBO documentary as saying: “We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country. I don’t like the idea of people looking at it as negative. There was nothing but a raised fist in the air and a bowed head, acknowledging the American flag—not symbolizing a hatred for it”. [Author’s Note: Emphasis added]. Mr. Smith’s comments here are very important; they represent a desire for America to live up to its own ideals: liberty and justice for all. As African Americans during the Civil Rights Era Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos had every right to protest as they did; they were striving for a more equal country with the acknowledgement that they were a part of that country. What we see more and more in the current United States is, however, a blatant disregard—even hatred for—the United States from its own citizenry. The search for equality and justice need not attack the country, since what we all strive for is a more inclusive and accepting country. I have, time and again, heard Sociologists lament the power of the state. While I too am wary of the over-regulatory power of the state (Seatbelt laws are but one example), I also recognize the need for some sort of organizing principle. Until a better form of organization supersedes the nation-state, I must side with Anthony D. Smith:
As for the predictions of a global culture, they fail to take into account the rootedness of cultures in time and place, and the ways in which identity depends on memory. A truly non-imperial ‘global culture’, timeless, placeless, technical and affectively neutral, must be memory-less and hence identity-less, or fall into a postmodern pastiche of existing national cultures and so disintegrate into its component parts. To date, we cannot discern a serious rival to the nation for the affections and loyalities of most human beings.
(Smith, 1998: 195; Emphasis added).