Although most of the controversies around national anthem protests have centered on football and basketball, soccer has not been a stranger to the conversation.
Soccer is the world’s game, after all, and the diversity of players’ backgrounds in MLS brings proof to these shores. The sport as a whole was one of the first to see a prominent athlete back Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest, as U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe took a knee during games last autumn with her club, the National Women’s Soccer League’s Seattle Reign. She also kneeled during the anthem at two national team games during that time.
A few months later, U.S. Soccer adopted a bylaw mandating that all players “shall stand respectfully” during the anthem at national team games. Rapinoe agreed publicly to abide by it.
In recent weeks, two MLS coaches — Toronto’s Greg Vanney and Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer — have backed their players’ rights to protest. U.S. men’s national team coach Bruce Arena did, too. The MLS Players Union spoke in favor, and the league office made it official policy that “we respect and support [players’] right to express their personal beliefs.”
On Wednesday, Union manager Jim Curtin was asked his opinion. He paused for a moment before answering. But he did answer, and he answered with some force.
“The issue of the kneeling comes up, and it’s one that I feel like people have kind of forgotten what it’s all about,” he said. “The reality is that systematic racial injustice goes on in our country, and if you don’t believe that, then you are blind to history. To native Americans back in the day, to slavery, and to the current situation.”
Curtin made it clear that he was speaking only for himself, and that he knew the risks of speaking out.
“There’s a lot of divisiveness going on in our country right now,” he said. “Our leader of our country has tweeted to start trouble with North Korea and the NFL in one weekend. It’s a tough time, where I feel like we’re becoming more separated as a country.”
Although Donald Trump was beaten in the presidential election by sizable margins in much of the Philadelphia region, there are plenty of Republicans in the suburban counties whose youth soccer-playing families are a key portion of the Union’s fan base.
There are likely also corporate sponsors, whether current or potential, who would prefer that Curtin stick to sports.
He went ahead anyway.
“My comment on that is, honestly, for white people who have never been in the positions, and have no frame of reference for what people of color, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans go through every day — it’s to keep your mouth shut,” Curtin said. “You can support people, and what they do, I’m all for that. I would be in the category of a coach who supports what players that are people of color want to decide.”
The subject has come up in a Union locker room that includes 11 African-Americans. Four of them have played for the U.S. national team. So has Union sporting director Earnie Stewart, the son of an African-American U.S. serviceman. They have represented their country when it is easy to do so, and when it is hard.
“Allow the players that have been treated unfairly [and] feel like they’ve been treated unfairly to have a voice,” Curtin said. “If it’s a peaceful protest, it’s one that you have to respect. That’s what this country is founded on, and right now, I think we’re too divisive with everything that we do.”
Across the rest of the locker room, there are players from eight other countries. Haris Medunjanin was a child refugee during the Bosnian war. Andre Blake came from Jamaica to Connecticut for a college scholarship, and is now one of the top goalkeepers in North America.
The American contingent represents a raft of regions. California-born Richie Marquez holds dual Mexican and American citizenship. Ray Gaddis is from Indiana. Marcus Epps is from Mississippi. John McCarthy is from North Catholic High and La Salle.
“Another thing that comes up is the old [line] that ‘They’re all millionaires, and they get paid a lot of money, and they should act how we tell them to act,’ ” Curtin said. “But if you want to talk about a bunch of self-made guys? The NFL, the NBA, Major League Soccer, my locker room [has] kids from all different countries … that have had to be self-made.”
Curtin added that “you look to our leader right now, he’s not quite a self-made guy.”
(He also noted that in MLS, many players are not millionaires.)
There has yet to be a formal protest at an MLS game this year. There has been one in the NWSL. At the Seattle-FC Kansas City game Sept. 24, a group of 10 players from both teams stayed off the field during the national anthem. Participants included Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux, U.S. national team co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn, and Canadian national team veterans Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott.
In Curtin’s own playing days, he had teammates from all over the world. After playing college soccer at Villanova, he spent eight years in Chicago, then two in suburban Los Angeles on a team owned by Mexican soccer powerhouse Chivas.
The lessons he has learned have come from personal experience.
“[Other people] go through things that I have no frame of reference for, and I should have no say in,”he said. “I can only support them. I can ask questions, I can learn from them. … And as a person who has been pretty privileged in this country myself, I have to keep my mouth shut and support my players.”
He will probably keep his mouth shut going forward. But he took this day to express himself, and left no doubt that he did so without regret.