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'End gun violence now!' - Bedoya plea proves you can't keep politics out of sport

18:00 BST 07/08/2019
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The Philadelphia Union star made headlines with his celebration on Sunday, but the two issues are as intertwined as ever in the U.S.

There is a connection between politics and soccer that is almost entirely unique within sport as a whole.

Many of the world's top clubs have been founded on political principles that, to this very day, remain a core piece of their identity.

Real Madrid, for example, represents Spanish royalty while Barcelona represents Catalonian pride. Clubs like Boca Juniors and Napoli have long been associated with the working classes while the bitter rivalry between Rangers and Celtic has been based on sectarian lines.

In the U.S., the politicisation of sport has long been unpopular. Sports are traditionally seen as an escape from the world around us, a break from the debates and discussions that come with everyday life. This is why athletes are often hit with the common refrain by administrators and fans of "stick to sports".

But that world, one where sports and politics are entirely separate, has increasingly become seen as a fantasy in recent years.

That is despite the fact that politics has often mixed with U.S sport. Baseball played a key role in the civil rights movement, with Jackie Robinson becoming a hero after breaking the color barrier. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali, himself a key member of the civil rights fight, famously refused the draft for the Vietnam War by proclaiming that “No Viet Cong ever called me n***er”.

The NFL has been embroiled in controversy following Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the American national anthem in protest at the nation’s treatment of black people. NBA players have also frequently been among the most outspoken and politically conscious in U.S Sport.

Major League Soccer now needs to adapt to this world, too, as it has become increasingly clear that the league's players and fans are unwilling to leave politics at home.

Following the recent mass shootings in both El Paso and Dayton, Philadelphia Union star Alejandro Bedoya made headlines by making a plea to Congress after scoring against D.C. United.

“Congress, do something now. End gun violence. Let’s go!" the midfielder shouted into the field mic over the weekend.

The plea followed a series of tweets where Bedoya spoke out in favour of gun reform. The issue was a personal one for Bedoya. He had grown up in Weston, FL, and had previously worn a shirt honoring the 17 students that were killed in a 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which is just 15 minutes from his hometown.

“Yes, we’re blessed with our athletic ability maybe, but before we’re athletes we’re human beings,” Bedoya told Sports Illustrated . “We feel this stuff. We’re not robots. We’re affected by things, whether directly or indirectly. So it’s only normal at times that people get emotional and need to say something. You know me. I’ve been vocal in the past. I’ll never be the kind of guy that just sticks to sports.”

Now, asking to end gun violence is not exactly a politically-charged statement, as left, right and center can all agree that mass murder is nothing short of tragic. But Bedoya's impassioned speech and the discussions that followed are just further proof that politics and sports go hand-in-hand, something MLS will need to accept rather than police.

The league has found itself in a number of controversies in recent years as supporter groups have become more and more vocal with their political viewpoints. The Seattle Sounders have recently experienced tension with a number of supporter groups after issuing a warning to fans who flew an anti-fascist flag in a recent match against the Portland Timbers.

The MLS Fan Code of Conduct forbids the use of any "(including on any sign or other visible representation) political, threatening, abusive, insulting, offensive language and/or gestures, which includes racist, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist or otherwise inappropriate language or behavior".

"The rights we stand for are not political, they are human rights," read a statement from the Emerald City Supporters , one of the Sounders' main supporters groups. "No one should be oppressed or persecuted because of who they are. As with all things in life no one should feel they can’t attend a soccer match and support the club they love. Just like the Iron Front symbol, the Emerald City Supporters stand for the oppressed and the persecuted."

The Sounders are far from the only club to have seen politics become a big talking point. In 2015, Toronto FC was at the center of controversy for  banning a "Refugees Welcome" banner,  although the  club has also welcomed Syrian refugees with match tickets and training sessions . New York City FC has had a number of incidents involving far-right groups , opening a debate centering around what responsibilities a club has to both individuals and groups of fans.

And it's certainly not just MLS. Megan Rapinoe became a national and international icon following a war of words with President Donald Trump.

Rapinone and the rest of the U.S. Women's National Team campaigned for gender equality and equal pay all through their World Cup-winning run. It was a tournament in France that was dominated by politics, social commentary and, ultimately, controversy and criticism.

"We basically have created a policy that takes any decision-making off the table," Commissioner Don Garber told ESPN in a recent interview. "Our stadiums are not environments where our fans should be expressing political views because you then are automatically opening yourself up to allowing counterviews. Then we're getting into a situation which is unmanageable and really not why the vast, vast majority of fans go to games. "

But as much as the league would love for politics and sports to be separate, this is simply impossible.

Bedoya will not be the last player to use his platform to speak his mind, and incidents like those with the Sounders won't be the last where fans take their opportunity to express theirs.

The game is changing and, in a modern world where political tensions sit at the forefront of everyday life, separating the two is a futile task.