Former U.S. national team star Alexi Lalas knows how important it is to play for his country.
A day after U.S. Soccer released a statement Saturday ordering all of its players to "stand respectfully" for the national anthem, Lalas expressed his feelings toward the issue on national TV during halftime of FS1's broadcast of Atlanta United's MLS debut against the New York Red Bulls.
"It's a privilege, it's an honor and it's a choice to represent your country. And it comes with responsibilities and expectations." Lalas said. "I know nowadays sometimes the national anthem is viewed as background noise, or is a reminder to some of the real problems we have as a country.
"But I look at it as a unique moment when we come together, we honor and celebrate being citizens of the greatest country in the world. And I think it's a tradition that should be preserved."
With MLS opening weekend in full swing, it was a high-profile stage for Lalas to speak about the topic that's been lingering in the U.S. sports world since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided last year to sit, and eventually kneel, during "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest racial injustice.
U.S. women's team midfielder Megan Rapinoe joined Kaepernick and other NFL stars in protest — first by kneeling during NWSL matches with the Seattle Reign, and eventually refusing to stand while representing her country on the pitch before games against Thailand and the Netherlands in September.
Rapinoe, a gay woman, said she was also protesting injustices in the LGBTQ community, telling Time magazine in October: "I thought a lot about it, read a lot about it and just felt, 'How can I not kneel too?' I know what it's like to look at the flag and not have all your rights."
U.S. Soccer denounced Rapinoe's actions, but she did not receive a punishment at the time. However, a punishment could be in place if she, or any player, feels it's acceptable to sit or kneel during the national anthem while wearing the red, white and blue uniform moving forward.
"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," the statement from U.S. Soccer read, without mentioning repercussions. According to former U.S. player Stuart Holden, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said consequences "would be addressed as it happens."
"The Star-Spangled Banner" began being played during professional sporting events in the United States at the 1918 World Series as the nation was at war. Congress didn't officially adopt the anthem until 1931, but by that time it was already a sign of patriotism at baseball games. Now it's played at all professional and college sporting events in the U.S.
The national anthem has been a symbol for the country through its toughest times. Look back to 9/11 and you'll see the impact the song had on Americans as they watched their favorite teams return to action following the horrific attacks that left the country shattered. The tune brought a moment of comfort and a time to reflect on those who lost their lives.
While Kaepernick, Rapinoe and other athletes have the right to speak freely about causes they're passionate about, they have chosen the wrong forum to express their beliefs. It's honorable to speak out about what they perceive as injustices, but there are ways to do it without tarnishing the legacy of those who have died for the country to be what it is today.
As we've seen in our nation's history, sports have always brought people together during times of crisis. There's no bigger honor as an athlete than to represent their country on an international level, with every citizen counting on you to provide a good image. Athletes aren't forced to wear the U.S. uniform, but if they choose to put on the colors, they should respect the flag and everything it represents.
"I have been in stadiums where I have stood for the anthem where everybody has booed, where flags have been burned, where I've been called every name in the book," Lalas said. "I have never served in the military, I have represented my country on the field. I know that pales in the comparisons to the men and women in the armed forces who serve our country, and some who have paid the ultimate price.
"Damn right, I'm going to stand, I'm going to put my hand over my heart and I am going to sing. And I believe that all U.S. national team players should be required to do that because just because we live in the land of the free, doesn't mean we are free to do anything that we want."
Lalas couldn't have said it any better.