America is having quite a moment. An ugly US election is drawing to its conclusion. Our society is locked in an ongoing debate about the prevalence of police shootings which fall disproportionately on black men. And athletes are taking a stand. Or rather, a knee.
First came, rather famously, Colin Kaepernick . In explaining his reasoning, Kaepernick stated
“There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
After the weekends games and protests by athletes taking a knee during the National Anthem, we had this week. A Tulsa police officer shot and killed a black man, Terence Crutcher, whose car stalled in the middle of the road. Charlotte police shot and killed another black man, Keith Lamont Scott, sparking three days of some-times violent protest in the North Carolina city.
If there were hopes that a spell of quiet might lead to the protests fizzling out before the next round of weekend sporting events, I think we can say those hopes are all but gone.
There will be more kneeling during the anthem. There will be more controversy around it for sure.
Is it proper to show disdain for the flag and the anthem by kneeling? Does kneeling disrespect soldiers that fought for the flag and the freedoms of the US? Couldn’t Kaepernick and others accomplish this same protest without grandstanding on an important symbol like our national anthem?
Or does it call attention to inequality and racial injustice in America? Is it a legitimate and laudable act of free speech that raises awareness to the 194 black peopele shot and killed by law enforcement officers this year? Shouldn’t minority athletes and their allies speak up when young black men are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police?
For the denizens that haunt this blog, I add to these things another important question.
Will the Rapids kneel for the anthem? And if so, what would happen?
There are two things working against Rapids players if they even wanted to protest. First, all but two players lack the stature and fame to make a statement by kneeling that would even emerge through the noise of the Denver sports scene’s monolithic fixation on the Denver Broncos. In other words, if a player kneels at DSGP in the same news cycle as Brandon Marshall, does it even make a sound? Second, to be able to take a strong political stand in a potentially dangerous way, a player needs to be safe in their job. Nobody that’s barely hanging onto the roster wants to have their actions during the national anthem determine their paycheck. It’s the stuff they do during the run of play they want to speak for them more than some symbolic protest.
The Rapids only notably outspoken player in recent memory was Clint Irwin, who took a strong stance in favor of better pay for players in newspaper articles and tweets. Since his departure, no Rapids player has been even mildly controversial since.
A number of Rapids players aren’t even American, so taking a knee during the anthem would either come across as quizzical, or even worse, downright inexcusable for an ‘outsider’. I’d be utterly surprised to see Kevin Doyle or Shkelzen Gashi or Micheal Azira or Marco Pappa kneel.
The Rapids players, then, have few candidates for such a brave and controversial act. But it isn’t inconceivable that a prominent USMNT player like Jermaine Jones or Tim Howard, or a significantly motivated and brave player like Marlon Hairston or Sam Cronin could take a knee during the playing of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’. And for one or more players to potentially join in out of solidarity.
If a Rapids player declared they would kneel, would Rapids management take a strong stance against it?
When Megan Rapinoe informed the media before a game that she planned to kneel for the anthem in a game against the Washington Spirit, Spirit owner Bill Lynch player the anthem while the players were still in the locker room.
Could that happen at DSGP?
Sure. The Rapids are strong supporters of the US Military, and the military are strong supporters of the Rapids. The Rapids front office may feel pressure to quash any potentially controversial protest before it starts. Even if they don’t resort to the kind of stunt that the Washington Spirit used, they may choose to issue a divisive and controversial statement like US Soccer did regarding Megan Rapinoe.
Either of those routes are likely to be seen as problematic. While a player might be seen negatively by some for taking a controversial stance on a topic, when their employer takes a hard line, it smacks of suppression of free speech. A much less pointed statement might be more likely.
How would fans feel if a Rapids player knelt during the anthem?
I honestly don’t know. While I sense that most soccer fans are a little bit more socially liberal than the average American sports fan - soccer is a bit more international, it has a strong Latino fan base - Rapids fans strike me as a great representation of Colorado as a whole: incredibly purple. I suspect a player kneeling for the anthem would be received in a pretty mixed way by fans. Which is a lot like how Colin Kaeperick is being received. On the one hand, Kaepernick has the top selling jersey in the NFL right now. On the other hand, according to Yahoo, if the protests spread to lots of NFL players, 44% of NFL viewers said they would ‘stop watching the NFL’. I really, really doubt that, but it still expresses pretty clearly how divisive the issue is.
I’d bet Rapids fans would also be split. Some would support it. Some would be enraged by it. Some would likely shrug and buckle in for an exciting playoff run. After the game, though, all Rapids fans would have to process it a little more deeply - to think ‘what does this mean to me? To the anthem? What does this symbol mean for black America?’
Sports is a microcosm of the rest of American life: it often carries with it a lighter side of all of the controversies that we are confronted with in the political sphere: race relations, immigration, free speech, economic inequality, etc. Fans generally want sports to be an escape from these contentious and painful realities. But athletes like Muhammed Ali and Jackie Robinson have shown us in the 20th century that sports can also be a powerful crucible to elevate and open up dialogue on important issues, uncomfortable though they may be.
Time will only tell if the next venue for that kind of discussion takes place with the players clad in the burgundy and white.