U.S. Soccer's anthem rule isn't just anti-American -- it's anti-soccer
When U.S. Soccer introduced its misguided anthem rule on Saturday -- "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" -- it tarnished both the country and the game.
New Policy 604-1 isn't just anti-American. It's anti-soccer.
Even the NFL -- that other football federation, the sports association that most proudly wraps itself in the American flag -- didn't punish Colin Kaepernick when he first sat and then kneeled during the "Star-Spangled Banner," nor did it sanction any of his fellow players who followed suit.
The same league that thinks taunting is worthy of a 15-yard penalty saw its employees expressing themselves during the anthem and decided that was their right.
"Encouraged but not required to stand," the NFL said.
"Shall stand respectfully," U.S. Soccer now says.
Because nothing says respect like telling adult Americans exactly how they must behave during a song about freedom.
This is the same organization that failed to sanction either Tim Howard or Abby Wambach when both made not-so-thinly veiled arguments against the inclusion of foreign-born players on national teams.
According to U.S. Soccer, then, you can make political statements about your teammates, but you can't make political statements about your country.
Which is more likely to result in a poorer performance on the pitch? Which is more damaging to the team and its reputation? Megan Rapinoe taking a knee during the anthem before a friendly against Thailand, or Howard suggesting that oh, let's say Jermaine Jones doesn't care about winning as much because he was born in Germany?
Nobody appears to have asked for this new rule. In the five months since Rapinoe's protest, there haven't been complaints about the rampant disrespect American soccer players have been showing during the anthem.
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.
So what is this really about? Did U.S. Soccer see some cynical chance to broaden its domestic presence by becoming the first major sports association* to take such a dubious position? 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.")
Or are there legions of lost fans who chose to stop supporting the national team after Rapinoe took her knee? Maybe, because it's amazing how often the Americans who scream the loudest about "Freedom!" are the same ones telling their fellow Americans, women especially, what they can and can't do with their bodies.
But even if those mystery ex-supporters are out there, are anthem purists really so big a market that it's worth alienating some significant percentage of your players and still-loyal fans to court it?
Worse, is it worth betraying everything your game itself represents?
Soccer is a pursuit of almost singular, limitless expression. It's the most beautiful game because it's the freest of them. Its global reach, its capacity for erasing division, its abiding sense of possibility -- each of its considerable glories is born of its simplicity.
Here is a ball, and here is a goal. Put one in the other just about any way you wish. No hands. Now please go work whatever magic you choose.
The rest of us will find our seats and get ready to watch the same game we've watched however many millions of times, still flush with the idea that we'll see something we've never seen before, even if it's just some kid's ridiculous haircut.
We know that our beloved game's players are bound by only a few basic rules, some lines painted on the grass, and gravity.
Everything else is up to them, and it always should be.
* The NBA and WNBA also have rules about standing during the anthem -- players must line up in a "dignified posture" -- but the NBA sent a letter to its players earlier this season open to discussing the rule, and the WNBA has not punished players who have violated it, including when the entire Indiana Fever team kneeled during the anthem in September.