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IMHO: Soccer can be an instrument for change

  • Women's US Soccer team star Megan Rapinoe, right, greets Arsenal's Nacho Monreal (18) an International Champions Cup soccer match between Arsenal and Fiorentina in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, July 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

  • Reign FC midfielder Allie Long, left, and forward Megan Rapinoe, right, wrap themselves in an American Flag during a pregame ceremony honoring the Women's World Cup players at Cheney Stadium, Sunday, July 28, 2019, in Tacoma, Wash. The Reign FC played the Chicago Red Stars in a National Women's Soccer League match. (Joshua Bessex/The News Tribune via AP)

  • United States forward Megan Rapinoe (15) walks onto the pitch before an international friendly soccer match against Ireland in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

  • In this file photo, Alejandro Bedoya of the Philadelphia Union heads the ball in front of the Portland Timbers goal in the second half on Saturday, April 8, 2017, at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pa. (Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

  • MLS soccer player Alejandro Bedoya attends MLS Media Week - Day 2 at Manhattan Beach Marriott on January 18, 2017 in Manhattan Beach, Calif. (Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for TAG Heuer/TNS) **FOR USE WITH THIS STORY ONLY**



Valley News Sports Editor
Saturday, August 10, 2019

It shouldn’t have taken a professional soccer player born in New Jersey, raised in Florida and of Colombian descent to move a nation toward addressing the abomination of gun violence in this country. But Alejandro Bedoya did. It’s time to start listening.

I forgive you for missing his seminal moment last Sunday night. Among your evening television options, watching Bedoya’s Major League Soccer match in Washington probably wasn’t at the top of your list. But that’s also the great thing about this game: Something truly astounding can happen at any moment. All you need to do is pay attention.

Bedoya scored three minutes into his Philadelphia Union’s visit to D.C. United that night. (I’m a lifelong United fan; that’s why I cared.) I could have descended into anger as Bedoya’s bunch marched to an eventual 5-1 win. What happened after his goal made me proud to be an American, and an American soccer fan.

Bedoya celebrated with his teammates. He hugged a pair of Union fans sitting behind a pitchside advertising board. Then he trotted over to the corner of the field, picked up a Fox Sports 1 television microphone and shouted the following: “Hey, Congress! Do something now! End gun violence! Let’s go!”

Bedoya used his platform — it’s green, covered in grass and covers around 9,600 square yards — to enunciate what he truly believes and what this country desperately needs to hear. Learning that some 30 people had died in the latest inexplicable shoot-ups, this time in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, pushed him to seize his moment.

He is as fed up with America’s gun culture as I am.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald later reported that Bedoya isn’t one to shy away from social commentary. The midfielder — who has represented his country more than 60 times in international competition — grew up 15 minutes from the site of last year’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killings in Parkland, Fla. He played last year’s Union season-opener wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “MSD Strong” under his jersey.

“I’m not going to sit idly and watch this stuff and not say something,” Bedoya said after Sunday’s win. “Before I’m an athlete, before I’m a soccer player, I’m a human being first. Something’s got to be done.”

The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks gun-related violence in the United States, listed 254 mass shootings (defined as an incident with at least four deaths and/or injuries) this year as of Wednesday. They resulted in 277 fatalities and 1,058 injuries. The gun lobby — the National Rifle Association leading the charge — would have you believe that the gun isn’t the problem. And yet the gun is the only constant in all of these cases.

This issue might have escaped your attention had it not been for a soccer player. An American soccer player. Born here. Raised here. Representative of a country whose citizens put a panderer to white supremacists in the White House, a man for whom hatred is a political strategy, leadership just another big word.

Had it not been for another American soccer player, the notions of pay equity, equal rights and diversity might have gotten by you recently, too. Megan Rapinoe made you think about all of them. And that made me proud to be an American, and an American soccer fan.

Through the length of the United States’ run to the Women’s World Cup championship in France last month, Rapinoe — a veteran of 158 national team appearances — unapologetically stood front and center. Born in California, playing professionally in Seattle and gay, Rapinoe was the person you couldn’t avoid if your true patriotic intention was to root for a national team victory.

On the field, she’s as good a crosser of a soccer ball as I’ve ever seen, regardless of gender (with the possible exception of one David Beckham). Off the field, she’s exactly the person I’d want to represent my country and me: a leader with the captain’s armband or without it, thoughtful in her conversations, committed in her decisions.

You don’t like that Rapinoe doesn’t sing the words of the national anthem or that she honored other athletes by joining their kneeling protest? You have a problem with her stating outright that she wouldn’t visit a Trump White House if invited for winning the World Cup? Tough. The roots of this nation are built on dissent. 

“Considering how much time and effort and pride we take in the platform that we have, and using it for good, and for leaving the game in a better place and hopefully the world in a better place,” Rapinoe said prior to the World Cup final, “I don’t think that I would want to go, and I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way or fight for the same things we fight for.”

The tweeter in chief can’t handle that. When he challenged her, Rapinoe responded by winning the tournament’s MVP and scoring awards to go with the championship.

“I held up my end of the bargain,” she said. The bully clammed up.

Soccer is my America. It’s multicultural. It’s multigender. It’s multi-generational. It represents the true nature of this country. It’s inclusive. It supports. It’s Bedoya screaming into a TV mic. It’s Rapinoe gracefully and forcefully leading. It’s a whole group of women representing the best of a sport and the best of a nation.

If you aren’t paying attention, you should be.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.