In the United States, one of the first things schoolchildren are taught is the pledge of allegiance. It’s so drilled into my own head that I still instinctively remove my hat and place my hand over my heart when those familiar lines begin, “I pledge allegiance… To the flag…” Same thing for the Star Spangled Banner. While learning rote obedience to a flag and a song at that age, I most often expressed myself through athletics. Even as I was aware as an eight-year-old that I was different, that the schoolyard insult “queer” was meant for me (even if no one else knew it), I could find in sports a comfort and joy unrivaled by any other activity. My heroes as a kid were all athletes—cisgender, straight, unquestioned athletes. As a child in the 80s, I wanted to be like Mike too. None of my sports heroes were like me; those childish insults couldn’t be hurled at them.
When I was still closeted, sports were a needed distraction from the gender dysphoria running rampant throughout my body. But lately, I cannot find the same passion for sport that I used to. It’s not a woman thing; my transition didn’t lessen my love of sport. I’ve found that the usual time and effort I’d usually devote to sports are now consumed by acts of self preservation. Trans people have always faced discrimination but the stakes are suddenly higher than ever. Ever since the election, I’ve been forced to make new accommodations for my own survival. Like most of the trans people I know, I managed to change my name and gender on all of my ID documents within a matter of weeks, in case my government decides I no longer have the right to legal ID that matches my appearance. This isn’t normal.
It’s hard to explain to people who are generally not marginalized why this time is so different. The election of Donald Trump and the ensuing rising tide of hate just feels so… I can’t quite find the right words for it. The hostile attitude towards minorities has always been there, of course. Marginalized people, especially black Americans, have been dealing with the worst of us for their entire lives. It just feels like those with bigoted views—the KKK, the neo-Nazis, the homophobes, the Islamophobes and the transphobes—are emboldened. They see Trump as their champion. They see a chance to finally take action on the words of hate that they’ve been spewing for decades. They are mobilizing against us.
When hate holds power, the rest of us find strength in protest. But for athletes, it can be a harrowing experience to bring up anything political. Michael Jordan was famous for not taking a stand on anything political, ensuring his name holds maximum marketability. When asked why he didn’t speak out politically, he once famously quipped “Republicans buy sneakers too.” When athletes depend on their name for endorsement deals, and sponsorships, the act of being political can sometimes take a bite out of their own wallets. But athletes are still human beings, they still have thoughts and feelings, they still have their politics, even when everyone around them are screaming to “stick to sports”.
Even though I don’t follow the everyday minutia of the sports I used to follow religiously, I still feel something from solidarity. When my life is so consumed by survival mode, seeing a privileged athlete speak out on my behalf and for others with marginalized identities, I feel the pull back towards the games that I love. I’m reminded that sports can be an agent of change.
When Megan Rapinoe first took a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter, she was pilloried and lauded in the press, facing criticism from her own team. Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch prioritized his own patriotic beliefs by insisting on playing the national anthem while the players were still in the locker room, but nevertheless she persisted. She explained why:
I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street. But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache…
I can understand if you think that I’m disrespecting the flag by kneeling, but it is because of my utmost respect for the flag and the promise it represents that I have chosen to demonstrate in this way. When I take a knee, I am facing the flag with my full body, staring straight into the heart of our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom — because I believe it is my responsibility, just as it is yours, to ensure that freedom is afforded to everyone in this country…
And, if you are in a position of influence like I am, you can use your platform to elevate the millions of voices being silenced, and support them in the tremendous work already being done.
Even more simply, you can ask yourself this question: “Do I truly care about equality for all people in this country?
Rapinoe spoke these words before the election, but recent events require us to ask the same question of ourselves. Between the Women’s March, the spontaneous airport protests, and the many other political rallies taking place, protest has become a routine weekend activity for those Americans that value tolerance and diversity. And for those with marginalized identities in the US, these protests aren’t merely a way to speak out against injustice: they’re a matter of life and death.
It was disappointing to see the head of US Soccer, Sunil Gulati, condemn Rapinoe “There is a right to freedom of speech, she also has obligations to putting on a national team uniform, and we think those are pretty strong when you’re representing the US national team and wearing the crest.” It seems Gulati wants it both ways: he believes everyone has the right to freedom of speech, but maybe not when you’re representing your country? And yet, freedom of speech is grounded in the concept of being an American citizen. Maybe the most patriotic thing that someone can do is exercise that freedom in every context possible, including during a protest while wearing the national team crest. Representing the national team should never require players serving as obedient little foot soldiers, deferring to a flag, if their sense of justice will not permit them to be silent.
While he’s perfectly happy to silence Rapinoe’s voice and actions, Gulati hasn’t taken an official stance on the executive order banning travel from seven Muslim countries. It’s astounding that the head of US soccer, the lead ambassador to the US from the world’s game, can just stand idly by while freedom of movement is stifled. Soccer, more than any other sport on the planet, depends on freedom of movement for its players, and yet Gulati doesn’t have an official opinion? It’s cowardly.
The last paragraph of Rapinoe’s statement shows why it’s so important for her to protest even when she’s being asked not to:
If you believe that everyone in the United States [and in the world] deserves equality, then demand to be a better, more educated, more empathetic version of yourself. And demand the same of every single person you know — because, as Seattle-based writer [and activist] Ijeoma Oluo put it so perfectly:
When we as a nation put our minds to something, when we truly choose to care about something, change always happens.
I am choosing to do something. I am choosing to care.
Athletes aren’t robots and sometimes you can’t just stick to sports. It’s only human take a stance against injustice, whether through words or action. Many black New England Patriots players have chosen to not accept the White House invitation to celebrate their Super Bowl win. Even Michael Bradley, captain of the US men’s national team, has taken a stand against the Muslim ban (with nary an objection from the aforementioned Gulati). When there’s wrong in the world, even the most sacred of traditions sometimes have to be violated in protest, be it a trip to the White House, or standing during an anthem.
Whether we (or they) like it or not, athletes are cultural leaders. We naturally look up to those in the spotlight. As such, athletes have a platform that can be used to shape the world around them. They have just as much of an obligation to speak up as the rest of us do when there is wrong in the world.
Many of us have memorized the famous poem by Pastor Martin Niemoller, referencing the Holocaust and now often used to inspire those standing against the current administration:
First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me
It serves as an apt warning in modern times. It feels like each day the hate becomes more insidious, more hostile. This time, they are coming for the undocumented, for the Muslims… As a trans woman, I am next. It’s comforting as a person with a marginalized identity to see so many others, especially athletes whose words and actions can influence so many, standing up for those without the power to do so.
Sometimes you really can’t just stick to sports.