MLS supports players' anthem protests; Bruce Arena does too, with a caveat

Major League Soccer issued a statement on Tuesday evening supporting its players’ right to protest during the playing of the national anthem:

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 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.

A memo was also sent across league headquarters and to staffs at all of the league’s clubs noting that the statement is the league’s policy on the matter.

Earlier this week, the MLS Players Union issued a statement backing its players’ right to protest, saying: “All players have every right to exercise their Constitutional rights and we will do everything in our power to defend those rights when they are challenged.”

Some MLS coaches have also offered their views on the subject.

Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney, a former U.S. national team player, said Wednesday: “For me, as long as the protest itself is peaceful and they feel it’s drawing attention to the cause that is necessary, then I understand.”

Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said earlier this week that “if any of my players were strong enough in an opinion that they wanted to do something, I would say that it’s their choice.”

The anthem protest controversy first arrived on the soccer landscape last November, when Megan Rapinoe became one of the first prominent white athletes to publicly back Colin Kaepernick. She took a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner at two U.S. women’s national team games, in solidarity with Kaepernick.

In late February, the U.S. Soccer Federation adopted a bylaw which states 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.”

Rapinoe later said she would abide by that.

On Tuesday night, U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena was asked his opinion on the subject at an event hosted by Fox Sports to promote its coverage of next year’s World Cup. In an exchange with reporters, Arena said that “demonstrations by the players are appropriate” in general, but he considers the national team environment to be a different matter. Here is a transcript of his remarks:

A reporter: What’s your reaction, in the sports world, to taking knees and all the protests that are going on during anthems?

Arena: Well, you know, I think that demonstrations by the players are appropriate. I can’t question that. I don’t want to get into a political debate here. The national team is different. You don’t have to play in the national team. You can choose not to play. Those guys are professionals in their club teams. That’s their jobs. They have to be there. Our guys don’t have to be. We have a policy, U.S. Soccer, that our players respect the national anthem. I don’t know exactly what it is. You [he points to a U.S. Soccer spokesman] might be able to state that. Is that a written policy? An agreed policy?

Spokesman: It is part of our bylaws, yes.

Arena: What more can I say, then?

A reporter: So if any player decided to go against that, would you have any –

Arena [in a humorous tone of voice]: Well, what do you think I should do, then. Right then and there, take him off? Burn a few substitutions? If four guys do it, we’re screwed. What do you think we should do? I’m going to go to the experts now. What happens if four guys take a knee? What do you think I should do?

A reporter [also in a humorous tone]: You take one too.

Arena: Okay. [He paused to end his view of the point.] If we need to discuss it, we’ll discuss it. But I don’t think that’s an issue we’re going to deal with. We’ve got enough to deal with on October 6 besides kneeling and stuff.