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What the new U.S. Soccer policy means for Megan Rapinoe

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Will the Seattle Reign player face any punishment if she kneels this season?

Netherlands v United States Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Over the weekend, a new U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) policy came to light that says national team players "shall stand respectfully" during national anthems. The policy was approved last month, but gained broader attention on Saturday when Fox Soccer analyst Stuart Holden posted an image of the rule on Twitter.

This policy seems to be in direct response to Megan Rapinoe’s decision last fall to kneel during the national anthem prior to a U.S. Women’s National Team match against Thailand. This action came shortly after Rapinoe elected to kneel during a Seattle Reign FC match against the Chicago Red Stars in an effort to call attention to conditions of racial inequality in America.

Rapinoe, who is openly gay, defended her decision to show support for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, stating, “I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.”

After Rapinoe knelt in a U.S. uniform, the Federation issued a statement noting that players are expected to stand: “As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.”

Still, no formal punishments were issued to Rapinoe at the time. That will apparently change moving forward, though — as currently written — the new policy is not explicit about consequences for violators. USSF President Sunil Gulati confirmed with Stuart Holden that there are no predetermined punishments, and violations would be addressed as they happen.

How will this affect Reign FC’s Rapinoe, then? In a statement released Monday, Rapinoe said she would accept the new law, while also remaining committed to using her voice to promote equality.

It is an honor to represent the USA and all that we stand for — to be able to pull on the red, white and blue to play a game that I love. I will respect the new bylaw the leadership at USSF has put forward. That said, I believe we should always value the use of our voice and platform to fight for equality of every kind.

Rapinoe wasn’t on the roster for the SheBelieves Cup, taking place right now, as Head Coach Jill Ellis said the Reign midfielder still needed to get back to full fitness after recovering from an ACL tear. Following the 1-0 SheBelieves Cup loss to England, U.S. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn was asked about the newly released policy.

“That’s actually the first that I’ve heard of it. I kind of heard that there was a policy in the making but I didn’t know that it passed,” she told reporters after the match. Jill Ellis was also unaware of the new policy.

While Rapinoe’s decision last year was controversial for many, Seattle Reign FC supported her right to peacefully protest — releasing a statement after her initial decision to kneel, which included the following message.

We empathize with those offended, as we understand that the playing of the national anthem is one of our nation’s most revered public celebrations, honoring the sacrifices that have been made — and continue to be made — by those serving in our armed forces.

At the same time, we see many inspired by Megan’s decision, as the courage she exhibited by acting on her beliefs empowers others to take action as well.

We will continue to encourage all Reign FC players to participate in the pre-match ceremony, which honors those who have served and made sacrifices on our behalf.

We will also continue to allow players to participate in the pre-match ceremony in a manner consistent with their personal beliefs, reflecting our respect for the rights earned and defended by those fighting for our nation.

And we will continue to support Megan in her efforts to make a positive impact on our country, encouraging her to do so in a way that provokes needed conversation about serious issues, in a manner consistent with the values of our organization.

Four days after her initial protest in Chicago, Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch played the national anthem early to prevent Rapinoe from protesting. In response, she said, “I think we need to have an open conversation about race relations in this country and what that means to both sides.”

Sounder at Heart reached out to Reign FC about this new policy and a spokesperson confirmed that, subsequent to USSF’s announcement of the policy, Rapinoe could not be punished by the Federation if she chose to kneel during a Reign match. “U.S. Soccer representatives provided guidance that the policy does not apply to players taking part in NWSL matches,” Reign FC stated.

While Reign FC provided no additional statement indicating whether the new USSF policy will affect how they handle similar protests this season, one can reasonably assume they’ll manage any issue the same way they have the last four seasons: by respecting their players and their decision to speak up for what they think is right.

Fans won’t have to wait too long to find out what Rapinoe chooses to do while wearing a Reign jersey, as preseason training kicks off this Friday, March 10, with the regular season beginning for Seattle on April 15.