If soccer wants to be part of the conversation, it needs to speak up now
This weekend was a remarkable one in America, as the spotlight in the nation's culture wars fell squarely on sports.
Colin Kaepernick himself, as much as the protest he made, has been a lightning rod for much national debate over the past year, but by Sunday night, the conversation had moved on to the NFL as a whole. Whether they chose to or not, every player, owner and coach found themselves implicated by a frontline that had moved to their touchline. The resulting spectacle of mass kneeling, national-anthem absences, or conspicuous presences, was remarkable and polarizing.
You can’t always control what the wider population or political leaders believe your sport “means." As of this weekend, a conversation about that meaning just got moved up the agenda for American soccer.
You could argue that NFL had asked for this. The league's comfort with military pageantry has served it well in good times. The NFL has never explicitly claimed watching the game itself was patriotic. It hasn't had to. The symbolism of the No. 1 sport in America and the culture around it has, in the two decades since it left baseball in the dust, meant even the halftime shows and adverts in its showpiece game get divined as runes revealing where we are as a nation. So if the same scrutiny now reveals profound fault lines, the NFL can hardly ask that the light be turned off. It asked to mean this much and profited from its own cultural weight.
That sense of everyone being implicated by their action or non-action widened this weekend to take in basketball, with the Golden State Warriors furor; hockey, as the Pittsburgh Penguins made themselves political by claiming to be apolitical; and by Monday morning, even NASCAR was in the throes of its own tense conversations about sanctions for protest.
The NWSL became involved as prominent players in Seattle stayed in the locker room during Sunday’s anthem, and previously, Megan Rapinoe became one of Kaepernick’s first supporters beyond football. But no MLS player has taken a knee yet, even if the events of this weekend and the raising of the temperature might suggest that it’s only a matter of time. For now, it’s been Twitter commentary (New York City's Mikey Lopez was particularly vocal this weekend) and some off-the-record conversations, but looking at the cover of Monday’s New York Times sports section being dominated by scenes from anthem ceremonies, you have to wonder: If not now, when?
Pertinently, there’s an international window coming up for the U.S. men’s and women’s teams. Any hope U.S. Soccer might have had that the conversation would quietly move on, after the debate around Rapinoe’s kneeling, was surely dispelled by this weekend’s events. The men, in particular, going into vital World Cup qualifying games, will be under scrutiny anyway, but however they choose to treat the anthem, it’s now going to be freighted with symbolism.
U.S. men’s players are not wholly averse to political statements about broader values of inclusivity, such as their choice to be photographed mingled with their Mexican counterparts during the team photos for the game that took place within days of Donald Trump’s election, and Bruce Arena has spoken about the heightened intensity of CONCACAF games for opponents, in the current political climate.
It’s in the nature of the U.S.’ version of soccer that, alone among the country’s major sports, it has a regular competitive interface with the rest of the world. And whatever version of suburban isolationism its domestic league explored in the 1990’s, the leagues and international teams are thoroughly global entities, now. And in this moment, the world is watching and judging.
Soccer, and its U.S. advocates and administrators, like to talk about the twin demographic forces of Hispanic audiences and millennials taking the game to a more central place in American life — just as demographic trends have given baseball a looming headache as its most committed fanbase ages out, and just as American football faces a future demographic reckoning with the youth-recruitment fallout in the wake of the CTE scandal.
Approaches to that latter issue are illuminating. U.S. Soccer and MLS have made some proactive movement on its own concussion protocols, but they have also been tacitly willing for the high-visibility pressure on NFL to deflect heat and benefit them through an inference that soccer is a much safer sport. Likewise, the handling of other social issues, such as gay athletes feeling able to come out, has combined laudable and genuine support from soccer peers and governing bodies, with subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions of just how different that cultural experience would be in other major leagues — as though soccer was inherently more virtuous.
Soccer, in general, has benefited in this last decade from being seen as the nimble challenger from the future. At the most basic level, U.S. television executives and owners love to talk about the anecdotal evidence of seeing kids on the streets wearing soccer jerseys, and the assumption in observations like that is that as those kids enter the workforce and ultimately the editorial, advertising and programming forces, that the tastes and sporting culture of the U.S. will change with them.
But as this weekend showed, if and when that happens, you can’t always control what the wider population, or political leaders, believe your sport “means.” And as of this weekend (I would argue long beforehand), a conversation about that meaning just got moved up the agenda for American soccer. Because if soccer truly wants to become a central part of the national conversation, it needs to speak up now, while the grown-ups are talking. Or it can sit on the sidelines and wait for its historical participation trophy.