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Athletes allowed to kneel, raise fists during national anthem at US Olympic trials

The American flag (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Dennis Cantrell)
March 31, 2021

American athletes who raise their fists or kneel during the national anthem at Olympic trials will not be sanctioned by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), a policy the committee will likely adhere to at the games in Tokyo this summer.

The USOPC released the new guidance on Tuesday outlining acceptable and unacceptable “racial and social justice demonstrations.”

Acceptable demonstrations include wearing a hat featuring phrases like “Black Lives Matter” or “Trans Lives Matter” or words like “equality” or “respect,” raising a fist and kneeling, as well as “orally advocating for equity/equal rights for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals, or other historically underrepresented, marginalized or minoritized populations.”

“Impermissible” demonstrations include wearing hats with “a hate symbol or hate speech on it,” violent protests, defacing a national flag and protests specifically targeting an organization, person or group of people.

Engaging in “other demonstrations” that include “any expression that advocates for something out the scope of a racial or social justice cause” is also considered impermissible and a violation of the committee’s rules.

“Our Olympic and Paralympic community, including alumni athletes, current athletes and future generations of hopefuls, is unique in its diversity – in race, gender, background and perspectives – but we are united as members of Team USA and we are a powerful force for good,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said in a letter released Tuesday on the updated policy.  

According to the guidance, the USOPC will enforce the demonstration rules through designated personnel on-site at each Trials Venue. Athletes who choose to engage in a demonstration will be allowed to continue competing until a review and hearing is conducted, but the USOPC also  “reserves the right to immediately remove an athlete if a demonstration puts themselves or others in danger, threatens to damage property or is in violation of local laws.”

“I have confidence you’ll make the best decision for you, your sport and your fellow competitors,” Hirshland stated in her letter.

Social justice demonstrations during U.S. sporting events have become common in recent years. Last month, The U.S. Soccer Federation decided it will no longer require players to stand for the national anthem, voting to repeal a 2017 policy that called on national team players to “stand respectfully” during the Star Spangled Banner before national team games.

Also in February, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban decided the team would no longer play the national anthem during home games before the NBA issued a statement saying “all teams will play the national anthem in keeping with longstanding league policy.”

Cuban has vocally supported players who choose to kneel during the national anthem, an exercise initiated in 2016 by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

“If they were taking a knee, and they were being respectful, I’d be proud of them,” Cuban told ESPN last year, adding that he hoped he would “join them.”