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Lauletta: Spirit made all the wrong moves

Spirit owner Bill Lynch, left, seen here with Dash coach Randy Waldrum, was called out  by Megan Rapinoe after the club moved the national anthem to thwart a potential protest. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Spirit owner Bill Lynch, left, seen here with Dash coach Randy Waldrum, was called out by Megan Rapinoe after the club moved the national anthem to thwart a potential protest. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

The Washington Spirit’s decision to play the national anthem without the players on the field has stoked the passions of women’s soccer fans like few events before it. When the night was over, the Spirit had clinched a home semifinal for the first time in club history, Crystal Dunn snapped out of her club goal scoring drought, and the Reign fell to the brink of failing to make the playoffs after two straight years winning the Shield comfortably. No one cared about any of it.

Here are my thoughts:

the decision was indefensible

I try hard to see both sides of every situation. I cannot find a side that justifies the Spirit’s actions. Unhappy with Megan Rapinoe electing to take a knee while the national anthem plays, the club decided to cut her off from below that knee—by using the same tool for their own form of protest. They couldn’t control the player so they controlled the event but in doing so wound up doing exactly what Rapinoe did—use the national anthem to make a broader point. The main difference is that Rapinoe did it to show support for another athlete who was trying to further a discussion about issues rooted deep in American culture. The Spirit did it as a direct salvo fired at one person – Megan Rapinoe.

If you think that is baseless speculation then you might want to read the first sentence of the statement released by the club shortly after the match kicked off.

In light of Seattle Reign and U.S. Women’s National Team member Megan Rapinoe’s public declaration that she intended to “take a knee” during the United States’ National Anthem tonight, we decided to play the anthem in our stadium ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent.

The release of the statement, which does not appear on the Spirit website, is what set women’s soccer Twitter alight and has earned the story coverage on, among other places, ESPN and the CNN home page.

Even forgetting for a moment that the Spirit altered the evening’s manifest because one player threatened to do something to dastardly as take a knee during a song (sarcasm noted please), there were at least two other major faux pas to the lengthy statement.

We understand this may be seen as an extraordinary step, but believe it was the best option to avoid taking focus away from the game on such an important night for our franchise

Guess what? Wednesday was one of the great nights, on the field, in the history of your franchise. On the final home match of the regular season a win secured a home semifinal for the first time ever. Guess how many people cared? Outside of players and diehard fans, approximately zero. So that sentence grossly missed the mark. And anyone with an iota of knowledge about public relations would have realized that and stopped the team from embarrassing itself.

Our owner Bill Lynch has lost personal friends during overseas conflicts and has other close friends who have also lost loved ones. Playing the national anthem prior to sports events became standard during World War II and was a way to express the team’s and fan’s patriotism and show support for the U.S. Military.

While I am sorry for Mr Lynch’s losses, that doesn’t exactly make him unique, and his experience is not particularly relevant to this situation. This is especially true when you made more of a mockery out of the ceremony this way than had you simply allowed Rapinoe to kneel down and be done with it.

Furthermore, millions of people attend sporting events in the United States every year. Why do they all have to show their patriotism and support of the military every time? What if they aren’t patriotic—or even American—and/or don’t support the military. It is quite a stretch to mandate your own customers to abide by the standards of a two-generation old ceremony and then tell them exactly why they’re doing it.

In comments to Lindsay Gibbs of Think Progress, a member of the Spirit Squadron said that “Bill Lynch does not speak for me.” That Squadron member is a military veteran.

{GORDON: What Wednesday night should have been for the Washington Spirit}

But what if it were different? What if every single person who bought a ticket for the match was looking forward to putting their hand over their heart and singing along to show their patriotism (which I might add is not exactly measured in any sort of tangible way)? in that case the message is that shunning Megan Rapinoe is more important than several thousand other people being able to do what they came to do.

Mission failed. On all fronts.

the rapinoe post game rap

When the game was over, and the Reign playoff chances were left dangling by a loose thread, Rapinoe and her coach Laura Harvey sat on some bleachers and took questions for nearly 15 minutes. Given the bully pulpit back, Rapinoe tore into Spirit owner Bill Lynch. She called the move to banish her and the rest of the players from the national anthem “f***ing unbelievable.” She was later asked if she thought Lynch was homophobic. The answer might have been tinged with speculation, but she tossed in the subtle yet effective salvo that she has, “had conversations with Spirit players current and past…” before discussing that the Spirit are the only team without a Pride Night and finishing with, “I do think that Bill Lynch is homophobic.”

Rapinoe also took the club—read Lynch—to task over the use of the word hijack, which came up twice in the statement. “I think it was incredibly distasteful to say that — four days before one of the worst tragedies in our country — to say that I ‘hijacked this event.’ It’s really disappointing, and disrespectful,” she said making the reference to Sunday being the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that were spearheaded by literal hijackings.

Ironically, Rapinoe and Harvey were the only two people to mention that the Spirit having clinched a home semifinal. (Spirit coach Jim Gabarra and forward Cheyna Williams did speak briefly about the match, but 24 hours after kickoff I have not seen quotes from either and one reporter I spoke to had yet to transcribe those quotes.)

Did Rapinoe go too far? Maybe. Do I blame her if she did? Not for a second.

the spirit side of the story

The only side of the story on offer from the Spirit is the inane statement the club put out shortly after the anthem was moved. On Wednesday a club spokesperson said of Lynch, “Bill is not available today.”

Thanks for standing up for and discussing what you felt so strongly about less than 24 hours ago.

the league side of the story

In the irony of ironies, NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush was in attendance and clearly not pleased. Whether his displeasure had more to do with the action or his being blindsided by it is not entirely clear. A better hint came from a league spokesperson who told The Equalizer’s Jennifer Gordon: “We had no knowledge of their decision and it was not approved by the league.”

The league office is historically quiet during prickly times. As NWSL continues to grow that won’t continue to be good enough.

what now

Rapinoe and Harvey said the national anthem incident did not impact the outcome (a 2-1 Spirit win) though Harvey acknowledged the atmosphere at the SoccerPlex was strange at kickoff. I find that difficult to believe, but being a coach Harvey is not about to start making excuses. Plus any on-field issues for the Reign this season go well beyond anything that happened Wednesday night in Washington. I expect the local fans in Seattle to give Rapinoe a huge ovation on Sunday when they host, you guessed it, the Spirit.

Could this impact the Spirit? Did Rapinoe open up some previously suppressed wounds between players and ownership? Time will tell.

Owning an NWSL club and being a homophobe seem an unlikely pairing, but Rapinoe is suggesting that her accusation is based at least partly on information garnered from inside Spirit walls. I have never met or spoken to Bill Lynch and cannot speak to his motivations for owning the Spirit or for his attitudes toward the club’s gay players. I just know that what he did Wednesday night helped no one.


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