Playing for country poses new questions for Megan Rapinoe, anthem protests

United States soccer legend Abby Wambach details the respect she has for former teammate Megan Rapinoe after seeing her protest during the national anthem.

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The game was supposed to be about the national anthem that wasn't played. Thursday's friendly against Thailand will be the first public look at the U.S. women's national team since its exit in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, a tournament that ended not with "The Star-Spangled Banner" but with the Germans standing as their anthem played at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

Instead it is about the national anthem that will be played at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus. It is about what Megan Rapinoe will do. And about what she should do, in this setting in particular.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

"It seems like I'm thinking 400 hours a day," said Megan Rapinoe, who on Wednesday still wasn't sure how best to represent both her team and social equality when the national anthem is played Thursday.

It sounded Wednesday like that isn't quite what anyone wants. Perhaps even including Rapinoe.

Nearly three weeks have passed since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's protests, first sitting on the bench during the national anthem and more recently kneeling on the sideline, initially came to national attention. Nearly two weeks have passed since Rapinoe did the same in solidarity, kneeling during the national anthem as a member of the Seattle Reign of the National Women's Soccer League. Numerous NFL players kneeled during anthems this past weekend, even amidst the remembrances of the 15th anniversary of 9/11.

But if the story is no longer new, what might transpire Thursday night is new. To date, those protests were done while representing professional teams. Doing so while representing the country would call back to American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the medal podium with fists raised in protest during the 1968 Olympics.

The anthem's place at professional sporting events is nebulous to begin with.

It is inseparable from international sporting events.

U.S. coach Jill Ellis, while supportive of Rapinoe's intent, left little doubt about her perspective. (Ellis said Wednesday afternoon the two had not spoken about the anthem and any possible protest specifically but would "chat" later that evening.)

"I totally understand where Megan is, in terms of her willingness to talk about hard social issues," Ellis said. "I respect that. I support that. Those conversations should be had. Me personally, in this environment for a national team, I don't disassociate playing for your country. I think that's a part of a national symbol. So in terms of standing for a national anthem, I think that's an expectation of a national team player."

In an interview earlier Wednesday with ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, Rapinoe said she had not decided what she would do during the anthem. She indicated that was still the case when she spoke with media Wednesday afternoon before the team's training session. She also sounded like someone who, while unshaken in her belief, was frustrated that so much of the talk surrounding the protest centered on what she is doing instead of why she is doing it.

To be honest, not as many [meaningful conversations] as I would want, or not as many as I would think that would be appropriate for what I'm trying to talk about.
Megan Rapinoe, on whether her protests had sparked productive conversations

Asked if she had found some of the productive conversations she hoped to spark, she mentioned talking to people in her life and activists in the movement. She didn't say anything about conversations with people who might disagree with her or be made uncomfortable.

"To be honest, not as many [meaningful conversations] as I would want, or not as many as I would think that would be appropriate for what I'm trying to talk about," Rapinoe said. "A lot of the conversation has been about the medium of protest and if there is offense to that and me having to defend myself against claims of being anti-American or anti-police or anti-military. So while there has been a lot [of conversation], I also think it's something that a lot of people don't want to talk about and will try to deflect in any way to not talk about it."

She told Schaap she wasn't sure how effective her protest was if it meant 20 percent of people instantly tuned out because they were offended by the means of delivery. In that arrangement, the argument becomes one about the anthem. About the symbol, not what it represents.

"Racial injustice, the sort of either explicit or unintended bias toward black people in this country," Rapinoe said of what she wished was the focus of public debate about the protests. "Police brutality against people of color, communities of color. The sort of massive revamp that we need in our police system, not only for the better treatment of people of color but also for police officers as well. I think that a lot of these cops have been put in very difficult situations and tasked with very difficult jobs with very little training and very little help. That's not an excuse, by any means, for any of the brutality or any of the intimidation, killings or violence that has happened on their watch. But I think it's a very complex issue that needs to be looked at holistically. It's not just one person doing something wrong or one side doing something wrong."

That is a long quote, which is part of the problem. Kneeling during the anthem is an excellent way to get people to pay attention. But the people who pay attention exist in a modern world of 140-character takes, 30-second television debates and the short attention spans they serve. To expect people, in the face of an image as powerful as kneeling during the anthem, to engage in calm, nuanced debate -- each side willing to hear the other -- is optimistic bordering on naive.

But it's equally difficult to have that debate if no one is paying attention in the first place.

"This is my lane," Rapinoe said. "And I feel like for me personally, this is, I think, the best way I can do it. Obviously to be on this team, to be able to represent my country and have the platform that I do, I'm incredibly grateful for it."

Which brings us back to what happens Thursday night in Columbus. No women's team in this country, perhaps the world, has the profile or the platform afforded the U.S. women's soccer team. Players, including Rapinoe, have used that platform often in recent years, making the case for equal turf at the World Cup, equal pay within the national program and a variety of other social issues. They use their voices individually and collectively.

But is there ever a line that can be crossed? Rapinoe said she spoke with her teammates Tuesday night to explain her motivations and answer any questions. She said she offered no apology for adding her voice to the issue. She offered no hint that others were ready to join her.

"What I always think about is the team ahead of the individual agenda," Ellis said. "[That] is probably where I'm at, in terms of there's a myriad of things that our players are concerned about. But I also think when you bring it to the team, you bring it to everybody and people that maybe don't even want to be embroiled in that discussion."

For all the talk about conversations, debates and chats, it will come down to what one person decides in the hours before a game about how best to represent what she believes in.

A list that includes both the national team and social equality.

"It seems like I'm thinking 400 hours a day, that's kind of how it feels," Rapinoe said. "I will continue to talk to the people in my life that I trust, and take all sides into account. Ultimately, it will be up to me and what I feel convicted about, what's in my bones and what I feel like is right."

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