If Megan Rapinoe decides to take a knee at next year’s Olympic Games, she could get a reprimand.
If she does it at the women’s World Cup in 2023, she could get a round of applause.
Over the past week, athletes, sports teams and leagues have expressed solidarity with protesters demanding an end to systemic racism and police brutality in the United States.
But the chorus of concern has, in several cases, highlighted a sharp contrast between the solemn statements of support and how some sports bodies view protests by their own athletes.
In Germany, three Bundesliga players including Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho and Schalke’s US midfielder Weston McKennie were placed under formal investigation by the German FA (DFB) for protesting against racism during matches last weekend.
Sancho marked his goal by removing his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with the slogan “Justice For George Floyd” — the African-American man whose death during an arrest by police in Minneapolis last week triggered the wave of US protests.
McKennie wore a black armband with the message “Justice for George.”
German authorities said they were obliged to investigate the players because of longstanding FIFA regulations which forbid footballers from displaying any “political, religious or personal” messages on their kit during games.
Yet all players under scrutiny were told Wednesday they will not face punishment.
That followed a statement from FIFA which appeared to mark a clear softening of the previous stance, with the world football governing body stating that leagues should now consider the “context” of each protest and apply “common sense.”
FIFA President Gianni Infantino later went even farther.
“For the avoidance of doubt, in a FIFA competition the recent demonstrations of players in Bundesliga matches would deserve an applause and not a punishment,” Infantino said.
– Hard-line Olympic stance –
POOL/AFP / Lars Baron Borussia Dortmund’s English midfielder Jadon Sancho escaped punishment for displaying a “Justice for George Floyd” during a Bundesliga game
That shift in FIFA’s position could easily create headaches at some point in future as administrators wrestle with the subjective standards of “context” and “common sense.”
The FIFA edict would already appear to contradict rules put in place by the United States Soccer Federation.
US Soccer — which this week posted a “United Against Racism” message across social media — introduced a regulation in 2017 requiring players to “stand respectfully” during the playing of the US national anthem.
The USSF rule was introduced after Rapinoe knelt in solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who ignited controversy in 2016 after refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in an effort to draw attention to racial injustice.
While FIFA has indicated a willingness to adapt with the times, the International Olympic Committee remains on a collision course with athletes who may be inclined to protest at next year’s Tokyo Games.
In January, the IOC issued an updated set of guidelines regarding athlete activism, outlawing any kind of demonstration on the medal podium or field of play.
The ban included any display of political messaging, including signs or armbands, hand gestures or kneeling or a refusal to follow the protocol of medal ceremonies.
The enhanced regulations followed incidents at the Pan American Games in Lima last August, where US hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden protested on the medal podium.
Berry raised a clenched fist salute after winning gold in her event. Imboden knelt on the podium after winning a bronze.
Both athletes were subsequently reprimanded by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, given probation for 12 months and warned that any repeat could face harsher punishment.
– Apology wanted –
Lima 2019/AFP / Jose SOTOMAYOR US fencer Race Imboden kneels on the medal podium at the 2019 Pan-American Games in Lima
Unsurprisingly, both Berry and Imboden were scathing this week as USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland issued a statement pledging that the organization “stands with those who demand equality.”
“I want an apology letter .. mailed .. just like you and the IOC MAILED ME WHEN YOU PUT ME ON PROBATION,” Berry said in response to Hirshland’s remarks. “Stop playing with me.”
Imboden also brushed off Hirshland’s statements.
“The USOC and its CEO are claiming to be supportive of Equality and supporting Black athletes,” Imboden said. “I’m white, I don’t want an apology. I want proof.”
Global Athlete, a pressure group which advocates on behalf of athletes around the world, believes the IOC’s approach to protests is already obsolete.
“From our perspective, it’s humans first, athletes second,” Global Athlete director general Rob Koehler told AFP. “Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right.
“To say an athlete can’t use their platform when they’re unpaid workers coming to the games, bringing all the revenues in, and they can’t use their voice to express about a cause that is important to them, is outdated and out of touch.”
Koehler said sports organizations expressing solidarity with athletes needed to back words with deeds.
“To all these sporting organizations, including the USOPC, that are coming out now — actions speak louder than words,” Koehler said.
“If you’re going to come out with statements supporting athletes speaking up, then you need to back that up by changing rules, to allow them to use their voice or their actions to promote social justice or any cause they believe in.”
Koehler is pessimistic that the IOC will relax its stance, unless there is concerted pressure from athletes, the public and sponsors.
“I’m not confident at all that the IOC will change,” he said.
“But I think athletes will. All it takes is for the most high-profile athlete at the Olympics to do it, and let’s see what the IOC does.”