Why Alexi Lalas Is Wrong about USSF's New Anthem Rule

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Why Alexi Lalas Is Wrong about USSF's New Anthem Rule

Athletes should not voice their political opinions because, a former athlete assures them, America is the greatest country on Earth.

That was the self-contradictory message that Fox Sports 1 soccer pundit Alexi Lalas chose to deliver during halftime of Atlanta United’s first-ever match Sunday night. After going over the highlights of an electric first half for MLS’ newest addition, the FS1 crew dedicated the remainder of halftime to Lalas’ rant. Asked for his thoughts on the recent decision by the U.S. Soccer Federation to require “All persons representing” the U.S. to “stand respectfully” during the national anthem before games, the former U.S. men’s team star spoke with a passion against athletes speaking out.

Lalas approached Alex Jones levels of red-faced flag-wavery as he argued that playing for a national team is “a privilege,” “an honor,” and “a choice.” He added that “all U.S. national team players should be required” not only to stand respectfully but also to put their hands over their hearts and sing during the national anthem. It’s worth noting that, while the recent ruling mandated “respectful” standing during the anthem, Lalas was the first to suggest mandatory singing and heart-covering.

Although Lalas admitted that his sacrifice, or lack thereof, “pales in comparison to the men and women in our armed forces … and some who have paid the ultimate price,” that didn’t stop him from drawing the comparison in the first place, nor from suggesting that it is unpatriotic and somehow offensive to remain silent during the anthem. He wrapped up in surprisingly ominous fashion, saying “Just because we live in the land of the free doesn’t mean that we are free to do anything that we want.”

Lalas owes his celebrity entirely to his time with the men’s national team, and he continues to capitalize on that celebrity by voicing his opinions publicly. He must understand on some level that his monologue was full of oversimplification and hypocrisy.

If he didn’t think that Soccer People should comment on politics, he could have used the halftime show to talk about Atlanta United vs. New York Red Bulls. Instead, he furiously agreed with the USSF’s ruling, a response to the actions of the women’s national team’s Megan Rapinoe. It was Rapinoe who knelt silently during the national anthem at two matches last year, following the lead of the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick, but Lalas was the one adding fuel to the fire.

Just like Rapinoe, Lalas decided to express his political views in the performance of his duties. He absolutely has that right. What’s disappointing is the arbitrary and self-serving line he drew between those who should and shouldn’t do so.

Why should current national team members be made to keep their political grievances to themselves while former players-turned-commentators are free to use their platforms for nationalist bombast? Should the USSF require its players, who are no more representatives of the U.S. Government than KFC workers are employees of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, to refrain from criticizing the government? And since when is it un-American to call out injustice and criticize the powers that be?

National team members are unofficial representatives of our country, but they are also citizens. A defining, often celebrated characteristic of the country they represent has been that citizens may speak out freely against their government. The right of a citizen to peacefully express dissenting opinions does not go away when that citizen puts on a U.S. jersey any more than our president’s right to fume about actresses on Twitter went away when he took office.

Forcing players to chose between the right to speak from their platform and the opportunity to compete internationally would be unfair, not to mention unnecessary. It’s a choice Alexi Lalas never had to make.

Lalas has long been a high-profile figure for U.S. soccer on and off the field. After 96 appearances for the USMNT, he worked in the front office of some of the nation’s most prominent clubs, then became a soccer pundit. 

Lalas admits he owes his status as one of America’s foremost Soccer Guys entirely to his years with the national team. After he left college without a degree and failed to make the Arsenal squad during a trial period, Lalas’ professional soccer career would have ended before it began if he hadn’t been called up to play for his country. 

It wasn’t a coincidence that he went from being unemployed to playing in the Italian first division shortly after appearing on the international stage at the 1994 World Cup. In a 2012 interview with The Huffington Post, he explicitly cited his opportunity with the national team as the catalyst for his subsequent success:

“I lived the power of what a World Cup can do to an individual in the summer of 1994,” he said. “The reason why I’m sitting here talking to you today is without a doubt because of what happened in that tournament.”

If he had had profound disagreements with the U.S. government at the time, would he have chosen to turn all that down in favor of life as a principled college dropout?

Even today, with American professional soccer far better off than it was in Lalas’ time, the impact of international soccer on a player’s career is undeniably positive. Of course nobody is forced into “service” with the men’s or women’s national teams, but turning down the offer means turning down the potential for international notoriety, huge endorsements, a higher club salary, and the opportunity to shine in a truly global spotlight.

That’s the opportunity Lalas got. Would he really tell a young American player they had to forego it because they didn’t feel compelled to put their hand over their heart for the national anthem? If a child of immigrants, like so many U.S. players, decided they felt more comfortable not singing, would Lalas tell them they had to give up on their World Cup dreams?

And why is a former athlete getting involved in this debate, anyway? Appearing on Fox Sports 1 is an honor, a privilege, and a choice. Shouldn’t he be sticking to sports?