Can U.S. Soccer punish Korbin Albert for social media activity? The policies and guidance in play

USWNT midfielder Korbin Albert apologized last week after reposts and other social media activity resurfaced online, including one post on TikTok that included a sermon given in a Christian worship space talking about how being gay and “feeling transgender” is wrong.

This incident has prompted questions around the U.S. Soccer Federation’s social media policies.

Albert is currently in camp with the USWNT ahead of this week’s SheBelieve Cup, with the team facing off against Japan on Saturday. The federation itself has not formally addressed Albert’s social media activity, nor has interim head coach Twila Kilgore. Largely, reaction crystallized around a post from former USWNT player Megan Rapinoe until Wednesday, when team captain Lindsey Horan and Alex Morgan issued a statement during a virtual media availability.

“We just want to address the disappointing situation regarding Korbin that has unfolded over this past week. We’ve worked extremely hard to uphold the integrity of this national team through all of the generations, and we are extremely, extremely sad that this standard was not upheld,” Horan said. “Our fans and our supporters feel like this is a team that they can rally behind, and it’s so important that they feel and continue to feel undeniably heard and seen.”

“We stand by maintaining a safe and respectful space, especially as allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community,” Morgan continued in the statement. “This platform has given us an opportunity to highlight causes that matter to us, something that we never take for granted.”

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Morgan, Horan on Albert situation: ‘disappointing’

While Albert has provided a current example of how social media may cause unintended consequences in the workplace, it’s not the first time it’s happened in women’s soccer. At the club level, Sydney Nasello was drafted by Portland Thorns FC ahead of the 2022 NWSL season, but the team did not sign her after her social media activity surfaced, including posts and shared content. While Nasello apologized at the time, she later said on a Tampa Bay radio show that her personal politics had prevented her from playing in the league.

“It’s a dream that was stripped from me just because I have different political beliefs,” Nasello said. “And the NWSL is so one-sided in that aspect that I think it’s sad and it’s disheartening to see. Because you can be an advocate for politics, but only if you’re on one side.”

For U.S. Soccer, a national governing body (that is not a governmental entity) and a non-profit, the approach to how to handle a player who has shared what it deems to be personal religious or political beliefs seems like it could differ from that of a single NWSL team that is part of a privately owned, for-profit league.

What are U.S. Soccer’s policies that are already in place that could address this or a similar situation? Does U.S. Soccer have the power to stop calling up a national team player due to their social media activity? Where’s the line on what would trigger discipline? Would the organization use such a power?

This examination of existing guidance from the federation focuses more on content that could be defined as a “personal belief.”

The first policy to consider is the collective bargaining agreement between the federation and the U.S. women’s national team players association. There is a fairly standard article that bans discrimination for both parties on a number of factors, including religion, race, sex, gender, gender identity, age, and more, in Article 6.

It’s Article 8 that could conceivably give U.S. Soccer some far-ranging space to make such a call, which reads: “All Federation decisions concerning the selection and participation of Players with or on the WNT shall be made solely to promote and/or enhance the best interests of the WNT and the WNT Program.” The federation could make a case that if a player is posting or sharing content online that it views as harmful or offensive, that is not in the best interests of the team or program.

U.S. Soccer has its own policies as well, publicly available on its website, including a code of conduct and a prohibited conduct policy. A U.S. Soccer spokesperson confirmed the federation has a social media document, but said it reflected guidance more than a policy.

The code of conduct includes a section titled “Guiding Your Behavior,” which asks four questions: “Is it consistent with the Code? Is it ethical? Is it Legal? Will it reflect well on me and U.S. Soccer?” If the answer to any of those questions is no, the guide concludes “DON’T DO IT.”

While there are no specific rules in the code of conduct on social media use, the document stresses that people “treat each other with respect and dignity” in a section on how to work as a team. “This means we raise our criticism constructively, acknowledge that professional disagreement may nonetheless exist, and understand that all team members are entitled to work in an environment that is free of harassment, bullying or unlawful discrimination.”

This is a notable section given that Albert also engaged with social media posts that both wished for, then celebrated, Megan Rapinoe’s injury to close out her career, which could also impact Albert’s standing in the locker room amongst her teammates.

Consequences for any violations of this code are not specified, though the federation says it takes all reports “seriously” and “reserves the right to take all available disciplinary and/or remedial measures for violation of this code.”

Under the prohibited conduct policy, harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct, whether verbal, physical or visual, that is based upon a person’s protected status. U.S. Soccer will not tolerate harassing conduct that affects tangible job benefits, that unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or safety, or that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.”

In Albert’s case, the current roster for the SheBelieves Cup largely stayed out of the ensuing discussion on social media. Center back Abby Dahlkemper shared Megan Rapinoe’s post on her own Instagram, but it was mostly either retired players or players not heading to April’s camp, such as Alana Cook and Lynn Williams, who publicly engaged.

On Tuesday, Williams and Sam Mewis — both teammates to Jaelene Daniels in North Carolina — discussed Albert’s social media activity and apology. Daniels’ history with the USWNT has some similarities to Albert’s, with Daniels having posted a reaction to the Supreme Court’s ruling for marriage equality on her social media, but her status with the U.S. national team was also more complicated by the fact that she turned down a call-up because she refused to wear rainbow numbers during Pride matches. That social activity occurred in 2015, and she was subsequently called up to the national team under then head coach Jill Ellis.

“Back then, we didn’t know how to approach the situation and we put soccer first,” Williams said on the episode of Good Vibes FC. “I feel like, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are just some things bigger than soccer, and one of them is human rights.”

On Wednesday, Morgan said that the USWNT had an internal conversation about the current situation, but that the conversation would remain internal. “One thing to also know is that we have never shied away from hard conversations within this team,” she said.

While there’s certainly precedent in the United States to terminate employees over social media posts, right now the federation does not appear to have the policies in place to support such a decision. Albert likely won’t be the last player to have personal viewpoints clash with the culture associated with the USWNT.

(Photo of Korbin Albert: Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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