Photo courtesy of Caroline Charruyer

Lost in the Moment: Politics at the Plex

On Wednesday, September 7, 2016, the Washington Spirit defeated the Seattle Reign FC, 2-1, to clinch a spot in the 2016 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) semifinals. The win earned the club the right to host a semifinal match for the first time in team history.

The Seattle Reign, however, are locked in a battle for the final playoff spot this year. The Reign and Spirit have had a rivalry since the inaugural NWSL season in 2013 when both teams engaged in a race to last place in the league table. The Spirit won that race, finishing with three wins and a paltry 14 points with a goal differential of -23. The Reign were slightly better, taking five wins, 18 points, and a -14 goal differential.

To know this is to appreciate what both teams have accomplished since 2013. In 2014, both teams turned it around to square off in the league semifinals with the NWSL Shield-winning Seattle Reign defeating the Spirit, 2-1. In 2015, the frenemies met again in the semifinals, and again the Reign defeated the Spirit, this time, 3-0.

This season, fortunes have changed for the Spirit, who headed into Wednesday’s contest at the top of the table. The Spirit took the lead off a Crystal Dunn wonder strike in first-half stoppage time, her first for the club this season. Cheyna Williams added another for the club in the 62nd minute. The Reign cut the lead in half in the 70th minute after Kim Little converted a penalty for a handball in the box. The Spirit held on to win.

That Dunn, last season’s most valuable player and Golden Boot winner, notched her first goal this late in the season with the Spirit still at the top of the table is remarkable. It’s also a testament to the depth of the team and the ways in which others have carried the scoring load.

Three Spirit players are Day Ones with the club: Tori Huster, Diana Matheson, and Ali Krieger. These are the players who have weathered everything from evil buses to fired coaches to lightning delays to injuries to probably the worst of it all, losing, in the Spirit’s steady climb up the table each season.

However, the events prior to and after the game have overshadowed these stories. A lot of moments were lost in those shadows.

In sifting through it all, though, it turns out all hasn’t been lost.

How Not to Release a Statement

Prior to the game, both teams were informed the national anthem would be played ahead of schedule while the players were in the locker rooms.

The decision, sent in a Spirit press release but from team owner Bill Lynch, was clear in its objective:

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.

It was an extraordinary move, one in which the release acknowledges. It was also tone-deaf and out of touch with how the real world works:

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.

The release goes on for four paragraphs. Six paragraphs in total, all not to take the focus away from a game in which your team is on the verge of securing a home semifinal for the first time in its history.

Releasing a statement that includes an impassioned and somewhat inflammatory explanation as to why you’re taking action to deny a single person a moment of expression minutes before your team’s crucial game and expect the focus to remain on the game is not how this works. It’s not how any of this works.

No, there were better options. One was to ask NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, who was in attendance that night, to weigh in.

The irony, of course, is by playing hide-and-seek with the national anthem, Lynch drew more attention to both he and Rapinoe in a way only Barbra Streisand could admire.

How to Compound the Error

Lynch chose not to address the media on Wednesday night after the game. The optics of that decision are bad. In retrospect, perhaps it was a good idea. But it sure looked like Lynch hung his team out to dry by putting them in the middle of the situation and then refusing to address it.

Note — Requests made to the Spirit for comment on issues related to Wednesday’s events have not been answered.

In a statement to Steven Goff of the Washington Post, Lynch has taken ownership of the press release and is much clearer to separate his actions from representing the Spirit organization as a whole. Pronouns, small but powerful, have changed — we to I, our to my. Though the bite and urgency from the press release is gone, what remains is Lynch’s steadfast belief in what the national anthem means to him and that he did the right thing.

Lynch is a veteran. It’s clear he believes strongly about the national anthem. Asking Lynch to consider the beliefs of others like Rapinoe in this situation should also carry with it the expectation that we consider his beliefs.

But Lynch — and in a different way, Rapinoe — is in a position of power in which to express and enforce those beliefs, and with that position comes responsibility. On Wednesday night, he made those beliefs the default for not only his organization but everyone at the SoccerPlex. He not only took the national anthem away from Rapinoe but from everyone in attendance. To take from one, he took from all.

Playing the national anthem before sporting events in this country is to honor our military personnel, who, in theory, serve to safeguard against such actions.

As owner of the team, Lynch can do any number of things. The way in which he does those things should be questioned, especially with regard to his players. He founded and funds a team in a professional women’s soccer landscape long beset by instability. All of which doesn’t exonerate him for every belief he may or may not hold.

In response to accusations of homophobia leveled at him from Rapinoe in postgame comments regarding the organization’s apparent reluctance to hold a Pride Night, Lynch told Goff:

“She probably got lost in the moment and blurted something out. I certainly don’t agree with the statement, by any stretch.”

Regarding promoting causes at Spirit games, Lynch further stated to the Post that he had made a “conscious decision early on [in his ownership] not to promote any individual causes. I want to focus on women’s soccer and the game. Everyone is welcome to our games and to work in our organization.”

Perhaps Lynch will re-think this stance to broaden what he deems a worthy cause, especially in light of these events as well as the fact his organization has promoted individual causes in the past.

That many of the players who walked off that field on Wednesday night had no idea about the press release Lynch sent out moments before the game is inexcusable. Several of the players know Rapinoe well and had they been approached, perhaps a more productive solution could have been found.

But they weren’t and it would be up to those same players — representing a team thrown into a situation not of their own doing — to find a way to move forward.

How to Release a Statement

The unenviable task of navigating an emotionally charged situation for all involved was left to Spirit team captain Ali Krieger. Of the situation — and no matter the side — there are some players who agree, some who disagree, and some who just want to play soccer.

On Thursday morning, the players held a players-only meeting to discuss the prior evening’s events. In that meeting, the players freely expressed their opinions and concerns about what had transpired while Krieger took notes. Opinions and concerns varied, but they listened to one another and by the end of the meeting, the team had agreed to a handful of key points to bring to Lynch. The beginnings of an idea for a team statement were starting to take shape.

Krieger met with Spirit head coach Jim Gabarra to share the team’s concerns that afternoon. With Gabarra’s support she sought out advice on drafting the statement that better represented the team’s side in all of this. The players reviewed the draft and offered edits and feedback.

As the captain, Krieger reached out directly to Lynch and presented the team’s concerns to him. They each spoke, and they listened to one another.

Lynch addressed the team and coaches on Friday morning before they left for Seattle in an effort to clear the air and figure out how to move forward.

In the meeting, the players shared the statement with Lynch and asked if he would have an issue with its release. He didn’t.

The players finalized the statement and requested that it be posted to the team’s website as-is, with no editing. After some discussion, management agreed. The statement was posted to the team’s website and tweeted out by the Spirit account prior to the team boarding the plane to Seattle.

That the statement was posted on the team’s website at all is due to some negotiating but the players felt strongly that it should come from an official team channel. Lynch’s statement went out via team press release and delivered to media inboxes.

For maximum reach, Krieger also posted the statement on her Instagram account, website, and retweeted the Spirit’s initial tweet.

For a team still in the hunt for the NWSL Shield, time was of the essence to Krieger. It was important for her and the team to be able to reflect and make their voices heard but it was also important to move forward.

“My goal was to guide the team through this week, allow everyone the chance to express themselves, and get back to the task at hand,” she said in a statement to OGM. “I felt it was very important we share the statement before we left for Seattle in order to put this behind us and be 100 percent focused on our upcoming games.”

How to Misread a Statement

Judging by comments, the players’ statement has been met with equal parts support and derision, much like Rapinoe’s stance and Lynch’s actions.

Many might see the players’ statement as a straight rebuke or reprisal of Lynch. It is not. Somewhere in the chain of all of these events, disagreement has been conflated with disrespect.

We respect our owner’s freedom to share his views and we understand his intentions. But as a team we don’t necessarily agree with those opinions or the actions taken on Wednesday evening.

Bold emphasis is mine and it’s important. Remove “necessarily” and then the statement becomes much more definitive. It’s possible, and in this case, probable, there are players who, irrespective of how they feel about Rapinoe taking a knee, disagree with the way in which Lynch acted and not his beliefs.

There’s a subtle distinction in there, one that is lost in commenting sections, on message boards, and on social media. To read the players’ statement in its entirety and assume otherwise is misreading it.

The idea that people — in any environment, be it a workplace or a team — must always be completely aligned in their beliefs is laughable at best, dangerous at worst.

To misread the players’ statement loses the meaning behind it: it’s not whether they stand with Rapinoe or stand against Lynch but that they stand for themselves and their desire to be heard.

Do not dismiss the significant risk the players undertook by preparing the statement and pushing for its release on the team’s website. Nor dismiss Lynch’s willingness to meet with his team, post the statement on the team website, and move forward. Cooler heads have prevailed, for the time being.

 

Lynch’s actions — the way in which he acted, not why he acted — led to his team losing, not on the field but off of it. Lost were moments in which to celebrate together; lost were moments in which to celebrate with supporters; lost were moments in which to celebrate the organization.

What has been found for Lynch and his players, however, is a path. A path toward a better and more open communication channel between them, one in which, hopefully, future moments won’t be lost.

 

Note — An update has been made to correct the error made in using “prepositions” for “pronouns.” The irony is not lost on us.