Separation of sport and State: military salutations at US Major League Soccer events


A central tenet of the international sports movement is that sport should be unfettered by politics—in other words, there must be a separation of sport and State. This is regulated by many governing bodies, such as the IOC and FIFA, which prohibit almost all forms of political statements. Nonetheless, sports events can be powerful platforms and many actors have utilised them for political means. This article addresses the now-common phenomenon at US professional sport events of paying homage to the military. This assumes various forms, often consisting of announcers directing the audience to pay tribute to the US armed forces or veterans prior to or during a match. A 2015 enquiry by two US Congresspersons exposed that the US Government had paid over USD 10 million to US professional sports leagues for such tributes, without disclosing the paid nature thereof to sports events audiences, a practice termed ‘paid patriotism’. Focusing on Major League Soccer, one league whose teams were documented to have held paid military tributes, this article argues that, paid or unpaid, such military salutations are impermissible political statements and thus inconsistent with the applicable (FIFA) regulations. Parallels are drawn to the wearing of poppies and associated homages on Remembrance Day organised by the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Football Associations. As a result of the poppy controversy, IFAB modified the Laws of the Game leading up to the 2018 Russia World Cup to permit commemorations of a ‘significant national and international event’. Nevertheless, military salutations remain impermissible political statements within the modified rule.

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  1. 1.

    The same or similar also occurs at other sports events in the USA, including other sports, and at, e.g., the youth, collegiate and minor-league levels.

  2. 2.

    For further discussion about the rise of the ‘support the troops’ movement and sports, see Howard Bryant, Sports and Patriotism, 4 July 2013, (Accessed 7 December 2018). As noted by another commentator, ‘I went to a military parade and a baseball (football, hockey) game broke out.’ William J. Astore, How Pro Sports Became Party of the U.S. Military’s War Machine, 20 August 2018, (Accessed 5 March 2019).

  3. 3.

    For discussion about the link between September 11 and the rise of nationalism and patriotism at sports events, see: ibid.; Andrew Bacevich, Ballpark Liturgy: America’s New Civic Religion—Cheap Grace at Fenway, 28 July 2011, (Accessed 7 December 2018); Cory Collins, 911 Shame: How We Let Sports Wrap Themselves in the Flag for Profit, 11 September 2015, (Accessed 7 December 2018).

  4. 4.

    See Kevin Seifert, How National Anthem Rules Differ Across Sports Leagues, 24 May 2018, (Accessed 5 March 2018); AJ Willingham, The National Anthem in Sports (Spoiler: It Wasn’t Always This Way), 25 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  5. 5.

    For other examples, see Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, Tackling Paid Patriotism: A Joint Oversight Report, 2016, p. 6 (Accessed 13 December 2018) [hereinafter ‘McCain & Flake, Tackling Paid Patriotism’].

  6. 6.

    For example, amongst others, International Olympic Committee, Olympic Charter, 2 August 2015, (Accessed 13 December 2018), Art. 50(2) provides that ‘No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’ and Art. 27(6) states that ‘The NOCs [National Olympic Committees] must preserve their autonomy and resist all pressures of any kind, including but not limited to political, legal, religious or other economic pressures…’.

  7. 7.

    See, e.g. Boykoff (2016), Schwab (2018), Charles Maurice, Politics and Sport: How FIFA, UEFA and the IOC Regulate Political Statements by Athletes, 20 May 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018) and Nafziger and Strenk (1978).

  8. 8.

    While three Canadian cities have MLS teams—Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver—this article focuses its analysis on military salutations in the USA.

  9. 9.

    The playing of national anthems in international competitions is considered exempt from being an impermissible political statement. In fact, it is arguably a political statement to act out against an anthem, as FIFA has sanctioned numerous national football associations due to the conduct of their fans during the playing of the national anthem (such as booing, holding signs that read ‘boo’ or turning their backs during the anthem), although it has been sanctioned under the umbrella of improper fan conduct under Art. 57 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code. On the other hand, FIFA has not gone so far as to sanction players for conduct that might be contrary to what a team may request of its players, such as not singing a national anthem. See FIFA, Disciplinary Overview—2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifiers, 27 April 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  10. 10.

    The only of the five major professional sporting league that does not have US- and Canadian-based teams is the National Football League—Canada has its own domestic football league, the Canadian Football League.

  11. 11.

    However, in recent years, other leagues have begun to play the national anthem before domestic sports events, notably the Russian Kontinental Hockey League (launched in 2008), which was influenced by the North American National Hockey League model.

  12. 12.

    Louis Jacobson, PolitiFact: A short history of the national anthem, protests and the NFL, 29 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  13. 13.

    The Star-Spangled Banner had not yet officially been made the national anthem of the USA—that occurred in 1931.

  14. 14.

    Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex, The Song Remains the Same, 8 September 2011, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  15. 15.

    For example, it became no longer necessary to hire an entire band to play the national anthem. Erik Brady, How national anthem became essential part of sports, 27 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  16. 16.

    See, e.g. Ira Berkow, NFL Capitalizes on Wave of Patriotism, 27 January 1991, (Accessed 7 December 2018) (quoting NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle as saying ‘It was a conscious effort on our part to bring the element of patriotism into the Super Bowl.’); Adam Kilgore, For decades, the NFL wrapped itself in the flag. Now, that’s made business uneasy, 6 September 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  17. 17.

    See, e.g. Bacevich (2010).

  18. 18.

    Martin and McHendry Jr (2016), p. 88.

  19. 19.

    Erik Brady, How national anthem became essential part of sports, 27 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  20. 20.

    Edelman (2018) 5.

  21. 21.

    See, e.g. Mark Chapman, On Bended Knee: NFL Protest Special, 11 October 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  22. 22.

    Domestically, high profile anthem protests include a protest by an American football player (Mr. David Meggyesy) during the Vietnam War, following the 1968 Olympics incident described infra fn 23. See Kisseloff (2006); Sam Farmer, 1968: Long before Colin Kaepernick, David Meggyesy began NFL anthem protest, 18 July 2018, (Accessed 28 February 2019). In 1994, the issue was again brought to the spotlight when professional basketball player Mr. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem on religious grounds. He was suspended and then fined by the National Basketball Association (NBA), eventually modifying his protest to pray in a standing position during the anthem. See Rick Maese, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf on Kaepernick Controversy: It’s a Duplicate Pretty Much, 24 August 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  23. 23.

    In the international arena, two black American athletes (Mr. Tommie Smith and Mr. John Carlos) raised their right fist during the national anthem during the 1968 Olympics in recognition of the civil rights movement in the USA. See Nafziger and Strenk (1978).

  24. 24.

    See Edelman (2018); Jack M Silverstein, Maybe sports should ‘stick to sports’, 28 September 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  25. 25.

    See, e.g. Aimee Lewis, Colin Kaepernick: A Cultural Star Fast Turning Into a Global Icon, 10 September 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018); Eric Reid, Why Colin Kaepernick and I Decided to Take a Knee, 25 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  26. 26.

    See National Public Radio, The Veteran and NFL Player Who Advised Kaepernick to Take a Knee, 9 September 2018, (Accessed 28 February 2019).

  27. 27.

    Julie Hirschfield Davis, Trump Calls for Boycott if NFL Doesn’t Crack Down on Anthem Protests, 24 September 2017, (Accessed 28 February 2019).

  28. 28.

    Julie Allen, Mike Pence’s Walkout at NFL Game Over Kneeling Protest Branded a ‘Stunt’ as Trump says he told him to, 9 October 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  29. 29.

    Graham Hays, Megan Rapinoe kneels again, defying ‘expectation’ of U.S. Soccer, 19 September 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018); Victor Mather, Megan Rapinoe’s Protest Leads to Division on and off the Pitch, 19 September 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  30. 30.

    United States Soccer Federation, Policy Manual, 2017–2018, Art. 604-1, (Accessed 13 December 2018) (‘all persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented.’). Certain domestic sports leagues also have similar rules, notably the NBA, which changed its rules in response to the protest by Mr. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf described supra note 22. See Nat’l Basketball Ass’n, Comments on the Rules of the National Basketball Association 2018–2019, (requiring players ‘to stand and line up in a dignified posture’ when the national anthems of the USA or Canada are played).

  31. 31.

    The NFL also changed its rules following the 2017 season to provide that players could remain in the locker room while the national anthem was played, but that if they went onto the field they were required to stand up respectfully during the national anthem. NFL, Roger Goodell’s Statement on National Anthem Policy, 23 May 2018, (Accessed 15 December 2018).

  32. 32.

    For example, ESPN, the broadcast rights-holder to ‘Monday Night Football’, announced its intention not to broadcast the national anthem for the 2018 season, incurring further ire from President Donald Trump; several other broadcasters have announced similar intentions. See Ken Belson, ESPN Won’t Show National Anthem Before Monday Night Football Games, The New York Times, 17 August 2018, (Accessed 14 December 2018).

  33. 33.

    See Howard Bryant, Veterans Speak Out Against the Militarization of Sports, 20 July 2018, (Accessed 14 December 2018).

  34. 34.

    For instance, the military has long provided military bands and colour guards to perform at games and, especially for American football, has provided military aircraft flyover of the stadium at the beginning of normal league matches—the military considers such actions to be ‘community relations participation’. AJ Willingham, The National Anthem in Sports (Spoiler: It Wasn’t Always This Way), 25 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018). For a description of this relationship with respect to the NFL, see Adam Kilgore. For decades, the NFL wrapped itself in the flag. Now, that’s made business uneasy, 6 September 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  35. 35.

    Shaun Scott, How the NFL sells (and profits from) the inextricable link between football and war, 9 September 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  36. 36.

    Some scholars suggest that deliberate contemporaneous public relations and propaganda campaigns may have contributed to this trend. Butterworth (2005), p. 109; Fischer (2013).

  37. 37.

    See Rugg (2016).

  38. 38.

    Including VIP boxes and cheerleader visits. McCain & Flake, Tackling Paid Patriotism, p. 9.

  39. 39.

    Id., p. 8.

  40. 40.


  41. 41.

    The Department of Defense also reportedly paid for recruitment advertisements or re-enlistment ceremonies. Propaganda has been identified by some scholars as one of the main use of sports by States. See Nafziger and Strenk (1978).

  42. 42.

    Martin Matishak, The Pentagon Paid Millions to Pro Sports Teams for Military Tributes, 4 November 2015, (Accessed 13 December 2018) (‘The Pentagon was “unusually and especially aggressive in trying to withhold this information from us”, said McCain, adding that the reasoning behind the scheme is “hard to figure”’.).

  43. 43.

    McCain & Flake, Tackling Paid Patriotism, p. 8.

  44. 44.

    Id., pp. 3-4.

  45. 45.

    See Roger Goodell, Letter from the Commissioner of the National Football League, 18 May 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018); Adam Kilgore, NFL will return taxpayer money used for military tributes, 19 May 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018). For example, the National Guard has admitted that sports games and military salutations are an excellent recruitment tool. See Christopher Baxter and Jonathan D. Salant, Jets’ salutes honor N.J. National Guard but cost taxpayers, 8 May 2015, (Accessed 14 December 2018).

  46. 46.

    United States National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, Pub. L. 114–92, div. A, title III, § 341(a), 25 November 2015; 129 Stat. 792. Although outside the scope of this article, Section 176(i) of the US Flag Code provides that ‘the flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever’, which could have bearing on both military salutations and military recruitment at US sports events. 4 USC § 176.

  47. 47.

    10 USC § 2241b.

  48. 48.

    The limitation on gifts is most likely aimed at limiting occurrences akin to the documented paid use by military personnel between 2012 and 2015 of VIP lounges and meetings with professional cheerleaders, amongst others. See McCain & Flake, Tackling Paid Patriotism, p. 9.

  49. 49.

    McCain & Flake, Tackling Paid Patriotism, pp. 69–78.

  50. 50.

    Professional athletes are defined as athletes that have a written contract with a club and are paid more for their soccer-playing activity than the expenses they effectively incur. FIFA, Regulations on the Status and Transfer for Players, 2018, Art. 2 (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  51. 51.

    See, e.g. Estatutos de la Confederación de Fútbol Associación de Norteamérica, Centroamérica y el Caribe, 2016, Art. 12 (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  52. 52.

    See, e.g. Collective Bargaining Agreement Between Major League Soccer and Major League Soccer Players Union, 1 February 2015, Art. 5, para. 3 (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  53. 53.


  54. 54.

    Made up of playing jersey, shorts, socks, shin guards and cleats.

  55. 55.

    IFAB, Laws of the Game 2018/2019, p. 58, Law 4(5), (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  56. 56.

    IFAB, Circular No. 11, Clarifications to the Laws of the Game, 25 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  57. 57.

    IFAB, Laws of the Game 2018/2019, p. 59, Law 4(5) (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  58. 58.

    FIFA, FIFA Disciplinary Code, 2017, Art. 53 (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  59. 59.

    Id., Art. 54.

  60. 60.

    Id., Art. 57.

  61. 61.

    Id., Art. 58.

  62. 62.

    Id., Art. 67.

  63. 63.

    FIFA, Code of Ethics, 2018, Art. 22 (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  64. 64.

    Major League Soccer, Fan Code of Conduct, not dated, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  65. 65.

    The 2018 Russian World Cup saw a plethora of sanctioned or alleged political statements, such as: a Croatian player yelling ‘Glory to Ukraine’ during a game against Russia (see Lev Golinkin, How a WWII-Era Chant Found Its Way to World Cup 2018, 13 July 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018)); Swiss players making a symbol of an eagle with their hands (suspected to represent Albanian nationalism) during a game against Serbia (see James Benge, Granit Xhaka, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Xherdan Shaqiri escape ban for celebration in win over Serbia, 25 June 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018); Nick Ames, Goal Celebration or Political Statement? For Xhaka and Shaqiri, the Eagle Symbol was both, 27 June 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018)); and the pitch invasion by members of the Russian political protest group ‘Pussy Riot’ during the World Cup final between France and Croatia (see Masha Gessen, World Cup 2018: The Moral Clarity of Pussy Riot’s Protest, 15 July 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018)).

  66. 66.

    As do some other Commonwealth countries, e.g. Australia and Canada.

  67. 67.

    The Poppy Shop, not dated, (Accessed 13 December 2018) (stating that one hundred per cent of the profits go to the Royal British Legion).

  68. 68.

    See, e.g. Robinson (1972), p. xxiv; David Aldridge, National anthem is inseparable from politics: History shows how Francis Scott Key’s poem from 1814 is inherently political, 28 May 2018, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  69. 69.

    Nick Stromberg, Why Doesn’t James McClean wear a poppy on Remembrance Weekend?, 5 November 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  70. 70.

    RT, England & Scotland to defy FIFA poppy ruling despite sanction threat, 3 November 2016, (Accessed 12 December 2018).

  71. 71.

    Kylie Maclellan and Gareth Jones, England and Scotland to defy poppy ban, 2 November 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  72. 72.

    Ian Herbert and Jack de Menezes, England will wear poppy on armbands despite points deduction risk but FIFA say they should not be exempt from ban, 2 November 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  73. 73.

    BBC, FIFA fines England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland over poppies, 19 December 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  74. 74.

    RTE, FAI fined by FIFA for display of Easter Rising symbol on Ireland shirts, 19 December 2016, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  75. 75.

    90MIN, In a week when the NFL shows Sport’s Political Power FIFA’s Poppy Capitulation is Completely Wrong, 26 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018) (copying tweet from the English FA).

  76. 76.

    Malay Mail, UK Nations plan to wear poppies after FIFA’s U-turn, 30 October 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  77. 77.

    BBC, England and Germany to wear black armbands bearing poppies at Wembley, 8 November 2017, (Accessed 10 December 2018).

  78. 78.

    East Lothian Courier, PM greets FIFA’s decision to drop ‘outrageous’ ban on poppies, 25 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  79. 79.

    It could be argued that this is a slippery slope, despite the statement in the IFAB Circular that due consideration should be taken of the ‘sensibilities of the other team and the general public’.

  80. 80.

    On 13 June 2017, Qatar played South Korea in Doha in a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying match. Qatar was in the midst of an on-going dispute with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have allegedly sought to isolate Qatar, the 2022 World Cup host. During the pre-game warm-up, the Qatari players wore t-shirts with the image of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani to show their support for him. Fans in the stands also wore and displayed images of the Emir. Once the game had commenced, after Qatari player Mr. Hasan Alhaydos scored the first goal, he took a t-shirt from a spectator and lifted it into the air. The FIFA DRC imposed on the Qatari FA a fine of CHF 50,000 for breaching the rules on political statements and on Mr. Alhaydos a fine of CHF 5000 for unsporting behavior. See, e.g. Al Jazeera, Qatar football team faces FIFA sanction for emir shirt, 14 June 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  81. 81.

    In the lead-up to the 2014 Brazil World Cup, Argentina played a friendly against Slovenia on 7 June 2014. Prior to the match, the Argentine team lined up on the pitch and unfurled a banner that read, as translated into English, ‘The Falklands are Argentine.’ This banner was in support of the Argentine Government’s claims to a contested archipelago off its Southern coast with England, a territorial conflict that dates to 1982. As a result, the Argentine FA was fined CHF 30,000. See BBC, Argentina FA fined £20,000 for Falklands Display, 26 July 2014, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  82. 82.

    For example, the FAs of Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus and Chile, just to name a few. See FIFA, Disciplinary Overview – 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ Qualifiers, 27 April 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  83. 83.

    IFAB, Laws of the Game 2018/2019, p. 59, Law 4(5), (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  84. 84.

    Of course, the commemoration of an event by one country can have sensitive implications for another country. An example of this can be seen in the context of the poppy wars, where the English FA pointed out that Ireland had not been sanctioned for wearing a symbol commemorating the Easter Rising, which is the event linked to the independence of Ireland from England.

  85. 85.

    See, e.g. 90MIN, In a week when the NFL shows Sport’s Political Power FIFA’s Poppy Capitulation is Completely Wrong, 26 September 2017, (Accessed 13 December 2018).

  86. 86.

    Major League Baseball, Bucs announce new military jersey, cap for '18: Alternate uniforms to be worn as part of Military Appreciation Thursdays, 1 February 2018, (Accessed 5 March 2019): MLS, Limited-edition LA Galaxy camouflage warm-up t-shirts available for purchase, 21 May 2015, (Accessed 5 March 2019).

  87. 87.

    McCain & Flake, Tackling Paid Patriotism, p. 7.

  88. 88.

    See supra note 65.


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Magraw, K. Separation of sport and State: military salutations at US Major League Soccer events. Int Sports Law J 19, 102–115 (2019).

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  • Political statements
  • Military tributes
  • Poppy gate
  • Poppy wars
  • Paid patriotism
  • MLS
  • FIFA
  • World Cup
  • IFAB Laws of the Game
  • Soccer
  • Football