The U.S. Soccer Federation president personally apologized to Megan Rapinoe for the organization’s draconian anti-kneeling policy. The act of corporate contrition represents a seismic change in athlete activism, and how it is perceived. The athletes now hold the power.
Last week, the U.S. Soccer Federation’s board of directors approved a repeal of the national anthem policy, which was enacted in 2017. The previous year, Rapinoe became the first white U.S. pro athlete to kneel during the national anthem to protest systemic inequality, saying she was displaying solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.
In an interview with ESPN, newly elected U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone said she apologized to Rapinoe for the previous restriction.
“We missed the point completely — it was never about the flag,” she said. “(Megan) was great, she was collaborative and willing to communicate to the board and share her perspective, and I personally apologized to her for (USSF) putting this policy into place.”
The reversal predictably stoked the ire of President Donald Trump, who says he’ll stop watching U.S. soccer (sad!). Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida is going one step further, drafting a bill that would mandate athletes stand for the national anthem. But U.S. Soccer is not cowering to the political pressure. It is standing strong, just like NASCAR, which recently banned Confederate flags from race tracks.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said “Black Lives Matter,” though we’re waiting to see whether true action follows his words (the league is donating $250 million to social justice causes over the next 10 years).
On this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki,” I spoke with Outsports contributor Ken Schultz about the dramatic shift in perception surrounding athlete activism. Schultz highlights the shift from O.J. Simpson and Michael Jordan to today, which is outlined in sports journalist Howard Bryant’s 2018 book, “The Heritage.”
“In the era of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jordan, the Heritage, in terms of civil rights activism, disappeared, and what it was replaced by was Black athletes trying to mainstream themselves as much as possible in order to seek as many commercial endorsements as they could,” Schultz said. “What this current era represents to me right now is sort of a fascinating almost reputation of that particular era, where endorsements replaced activism. Now, activism actively gets you endorsements.”
This welcome change has been especially personified over the last few weeks, with athletes filling the leadership void in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. They are participating in protests, issuing strong statements against systemic racism, and in the case of LeBron James, forming an organization to combat voter suppression.
Some of the most poignant remarks about systemic racism came from Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud, who penned an essay for The Players’ Tribune titled, “Your silence is a knee on my neck.” In it, Cloud condemns white silence about police brutality against Black people, calling it an act of complicity.
Converse signed Cloud to a lucrative endorsement deal last week, partially because of her activism. The apparel company linked to Cloud’s viral essay in its Instagram post announcing the partnership.
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“The biggest thing is for me to use my platform as a microphone. That’s the goal, be a voice for the voiceless.” - @t__cloud9. Natasha Cloud most recently shared a powerful piece on @playerstribune against the racial injustices that are affecting Black people in America, and then took to the streets of Philly to demand that message be heard. This is one of many reasons we are both proud and humbled to welcome WNBA champion @t__cloud9 to the family.
Two years ago, Nike announced a new ad campaign with Kaepernick, and saw its stock reach an all-time high. While Kaepernick remains shamefully blackballed by the NFL, the retail success of his new Nike sneaker — it sold out the first day it went on sale last year — shows his mainstream commercial appeal.
Schultz says Cloud’s endorsement deal in particular shows how far removed we are from Jordan, who refused to take political stands as the most famous athlete in the world. (It’s worth noting Jordan recently announced he’ll donate $100 million to social justice causes, another symbol of our new climate.)
“That’s as far as you can get from Michael Jordan’s famous, ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too,” Schultz says. “That, to me, is probably a signal that for at least this particular moment in time, activism is not going to crush you in the public eye. It’s not only not going to crush you, but it’s going to elevate you to the point where a worldwide shoe brand wants to affiliate themselves with you, and wants to affiliate themselves with the message you’re spreading.”
As sports leagues continue to negotiate their returns amidst the coronavirus pandemic, politics and athletics will continue to blend. The debate is currently roaring in the NBA, where some star players, including Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard, say the league should cancel the remainder of its season so athletes can fully devote themselves to protesting racial inequity.
The NBA has at least 900 million reasons to finish its season, so it’s uncertain whether the league office will listen. But star athletes are unafraid to go against those in positions of authority, including their employers.
The U.S. Soccer Federation’s apology to Rapinoe shows the power shift.
Click here to check out this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki Podcast”. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.