If Megan Rapinoe decides to take a knee at next year’s Olympic Games, she could get a reprimand, but 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 US.
However, 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 winger Jadon Sancho and Schalke 04 midfielder Weston McKennie, were placed under formal investigation by the German soccer federation (DFB) for protesting against racism during matches at the weekend.
Sancho marked his goal by removing his shirt to reveal a T-shirt with the slogan “Justice For George Floyd” — the African American whose death during an arrest by police in Minneapolis last week triggered the wave of US protests — while McKennie wore a black armband with the message “Justice for George.”
German authorities said that they were obliged to investigate the players because of long-standing FIFA regulations that forbid soccer players from displaying any “political, religious or personal” messages on their uniforms during games.
Yet, all players under scrutiny were on Wednesday told that they would not face punishment.
That followed a statement from FIFA that appeared to mark a clear softening of the previous stance, with the world soccer governing body stating that leagues should 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 applause and not a punishment,” Infantino said.
The FIFA edict would appear to contradict rules put in place by the US Soccer Federation (USSF).
The federation — 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 regulation 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 (IOC) remains on a collision course with athletes who might be inclined to protest at next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games.
The IOC in January issued an updated set of guidelines regarding athlete activism, outlawing any kind of demonstration on the medal podium or field of play.
Global Athlete, a pressure group that advocates on behalf of athletes around the world, believes that the IOC’s approach to protests is already obsolete.
“From our perspective, it’s humans first, athletes second,” Global Athlete director general Rob Koehler said. “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.”
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