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USOPC reprimands athletes for political protest, says it’s for their own good


Gwen Berry and Race Imboden knew that there might be consequences for their anthem protests at the Pan-Am Games earlier this month, and did it anyway. U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland delivered those consequences on Tuesday, putting Berry and Imboden on 12-month “probation."

American athletes in Olympic sports generally sign contracts promising not to engage in political speech at competitions. The letters from Hirshland to Berry and Imboden were first reported by the Associated Press.

Berry had won gold in the women’s hammer throw when she raised her first, while Imboden knelt after receiving gold for a team fencing event. (His teammates did not join the protest, but Imboden said he told them of it in advance.) Berry told reporters that “Somebody has to stand for all of the injustices that are going on in America and a president who’s making it worse,” while Imboden said he was protesting “Racism, gun control, mistreatment of immigrants, and a president who spreads hate.”

The identical letters, also obtained by the Daily News, are short on specifics. The only paragraph specifying punishment reads: “This letter will serve as a formal reprimand from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee. Additionally, the USOPC considers you to be in a probationary period for the next 12 months. This means you could face more serious sanctions for any additional breach of our code of conduct than might otherwise be levied for an athlete in good standing.”

What the letters mostly do is beg the athletes to not protest at the Olympics, and make it clear that this is a problem that the USOPC is extremely far from solving. Hirshland writes that “A prohibition on political protest is not intended to silence important voices.... The policies surrounding political protest exist because sport is a powerful common language that brings us all together.”

The letter was also clearly meant for an audience larger than just Berry and Imboden. “Issuing a reprimand to other athletes in a similar instance is insufficient,” Hirshland writes. Essentially: you two got to test the boundaries. Here’s where they are; no one else

She closes the letter by saying “I want to be part of finding more robust opportunities for athletes to use their voices in a meaningful way.” But there is nothing the USOPC can give Berry or Imboden that matches the platform they get from actions like the ones they took at the Pan Ams. The letter is trying to take that away while replacing it with something less powerful.

The reality for Berry and Imboden, and athletes in niche sports like theirs, is that there is no opportunity more robust than a medal ceremony at an international championship like the Pan-Am Games or the Olympics. If Gwen Berry tweets about Donald Trump a week before the Olympics, no one notices. If she kneels on the medal stand in Tokyo, the world pays attention. The USOPC can’t do anything about that.