Washington Spirit owner demonstrates how not to handle a protest

What Bill Lynch doesn’t get about Megan Rapinoe, symbolism, and racial justice

Image via Youtube
Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch was determined not to make last night’s match against the Seattle Reign about himself. He was so determined, in fact, to make sure the evening wasn’t hijacked that he issued a six-paragraph statement before it even got started. This is the sort of thought process that usually prefaces a farce — and so it did, but it also prefaced a tragedy.

In purely factual terms, this is a simple story. Last weekend, Seattle Reign and U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem. She said it was a sign of solidarity with NFL player Colin Kaepernick and his ongoing protest against America’s racial inequities. She also said that she’d continue doing so. Lynch heard this and decided to play the anthem while the teams were in their locker rooms, thereby denying Rapinoe the opportunity to repeat her protest.

And if the story simply ended there, you could almost imagine the whole thing having gone okay. Everyone would have been peeved, sure, and the issue wouldn’t have gone away, but it wouldn’t have been its own episode. It wouldn’t have overshadowed an evening on which all the league’s teams were playing, many with playoff spots at stake. But that isn’t what happened. The statement from Lynch (it was listed as “Spirit ownership” but who are we kidding?) went on about how he had served in the military and knew people who had lost their lives in military service, and the anthem was a place to respect the military as opposed to protesting. This, in other words, was the rant of a man who had never heard of the Streisand effect.

Bill Lynch, however, is not a very interesting person — even in the context of this story. If I had to list one interesting thing about him, it’d be that his team is the only one in the NWSL to never tweet in recognition of marriage equality and that it has never held pride night. That is an interesting fact, but it doesn’t make the man particularly interesting. He’s the rote principal character in a bad teen show: necessary but not compelling in any fundamental way. Instead of focusing on how Bill Lynch failed, it’s worth noting that Megan Rapinoe has succeeded in her protest. More to the point, her message, unlike Lynch’s, does not require her presence: If owners feel compelled to sneak in the anthem before the players are on the pitch, players like Rapinoe are still sending a message.

This isn’t about Rapinoe. She made that much clear in interviews. “It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this,” she told American Soccer Now’s John D. Halloran. “We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.” That is what Bill Lynch misunderstood about Megan Rapinoe’s protest: it was never really about her. Heaven only knows why he’d struggle to conceptualize such a sentiment. Oh, here’s another thing: racial justice, which Lynch’s statement writes off as a “personal” issue, is a societal issue. That, above all else, is what Bill Lynch doesn’t get.

But enough about Bill Lynch, the least interesting man in sports. This whole episode is sad because it detracts from the hard work of all sorts of good people: the players who are generally underpaid; the people who devote their time to the growth of a league that cannot fully compensate their work; the activists who have more serious things to be asked about than the guy who owns the Washington Spirit. This also gets at why it’s so difficult to protest silliness like this: who, exactly, is punished if you withdraw your support from an NWSL team?

That’s a mystery. This whole thing is a mystery to me, frankly. Maybe it’s because I’m foreign. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up in a country where putting your hand on your heart during the anthem is little bit weird — in fact, we’d call it foreign because that’s what it would be. If a symbol or ritual is so fragile that it cannot withstand the least bit of protest, is that ritual not profoundly broken? There are other things in America that are broken and more urgently in need of repair, but that is the question I can’t escape. Thanks a lot, Bill Lynch.

David Rudin is an editor at Howler. When not tweeting as the magazine, he can be found at @DavidSRudin