Araos: MLS Should Drop National Anthems

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

President Donald J. Trump called for the immediate firing of any NFL player who does not stand for the national anthem putting the notion of playing national anthems before games into focus. Nowhere has this recently contrived ceremony of loyalty made less sense than in Major League Soccer, where almost half the players come from outside the U.S and Canada. In this moment, if the league continues to conduct this ceremony it will be putting pressure on its players to pick a side when those in power can evade the responsibility.

So, MLS, save face before the moment catches up to you, drop the national anthem from the pregame ceremony.

Personally, I have not stood for the national anthem at an MLS game this season and I remained seated during the rendition before last Saturday’s New York City FC game. But I get to protest this country’s unresolved history of racial injustice and ongoing shift toward becoming a police state from a distance, a player at midfield does not have that luxury. Instead if they choose not to stand, the spotlight will fall on them for explaining an expression that is permitted act of free speech when such an onus for those who do stand does not exist.

This dynamic exists despite Commissioner Don Garber’s stated tolerance toward any player who chooses not to stand for the anthem mainly because standing for the anthem, itself a political act, has been accepted as a neutral stance. All thanks to years of militarism, capitalism and showmanship interacting with each other since the beginning of the first Gulf War. It predates the league but MLS’ current investors brought over the ceremonies and paid relationships with the Armed Forces from their holdings in other sports leagues. It now creates a situation where 48% of players become pawns in the politics of a country new to them.

The decision to not stand for the anthem began once police officers were able to escape prosecution, let alone conviction, for causing the death of unarmed people. NYCFC has had the NYPD feature in every prematch ceremony as part of the “Tunnel of Honor,” even though only one officer has been convicted for an unjustified death this decade and officer Daniel Pantaleo remains employed.

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

At Red Bull Arena, the anthem has become a spectacle filled with pyrotechnics, violations of the flag code and supporters shouting “Red,” but remain silent throughout the rest of the performance. Then they cheer on Englishman Bradley Wright-Phillips and Brazilian Felipe.

For Wright-Phillips, Felipe, David Villa or any other New York Red Bulls or NYCFC player who has played overseas MLS’ pregame ceremony is a novelty. They walk out onto the field, listen to a league anthem (which also exists in MLS), maybe stand for a moment of silence to honor a recent event and then play. They were never obligated to show unbridled loyalty to the United States and/or Canada beforehand. Making them and any of the current and future foreign players in MLS do the same, especially in this moment, is to put it lightly, unfair.

It is safe to assume that there are probably players in MLS who wholeheartedly agree with President Trump, as is the case in any pool of more than 100 Americans. But if the league and its teams want things to be as apolitical as possible, it needs to recognize the politics of the national anthem and obligating players and fans to stand for its rendition.

Yet judging from how many of the same principles acted when voting to enact a U.S. Soccer bylaw stating that players “shall stand respectfully” for the anthem, I doubt they fully understand it. Their main concern continues to be getting Americans to like soccer and spend money on it by making it as inoffensively patriotic as possible. Those ideals of “Club, Country, Community” and “One Nation, One Team” were difficult to achieve even in normal times. Now it’s impossible for the principles in MLS and U.S. Soccer to do so without projecting political perspectives onto players they effectively muzzle.

If they want to be successful at this while preserving the myth and lie that sports is separate from politics, they can start with dropping the national anthem.