Advancing the ball

USWNT players are done kneeling during the anthem. What's next?

Hi friends, and welcome to Power Plays, a no-bullshit newsletter about sexism in sports, written by me, Lindsay Gibbs.

A quick reminder before today’s newsletter begins: Paid subscriptions are 21% off this entire month. This is an absolute steal.

Get 21% off for 1 year

If you’re not a paid subscriber, you missed last week’s dive into how the media covered Anna Kournikova’s career. I remembered the coverage of Kournikova being sexist, but it was more toxic than I recalled; one reputable magazine opened a profile of the then-16-year-old by saying: “Kournikova, the teen sexpot with a romantic link to a 28-year-old hockey star, appears to be flirting with you.”

Today is the last day of the She Believes Cup in Orlando, Florida, and in today’s newsletter, we’re talking protests and progress.


Okay, friends. Let’s do this.

The next stage

On Sunday night in Orlando, Florida, before the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) faced Brazil in the She Believes Cup, all 11 USWNT starters remained standing while the national anthem played.

Normally, such a thing wouldn’t be news-worthy. But in the team’s four previous games — all off which took place after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man and father of five, and sparked Black Lives Matter protests across the world — a majority of USWNT starters took a knee during the anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism.

After the game, Crystal Dunn and Christen Press, two of the three Black players to start the game, but also the two stand-out players of the game — were the only two USWNT players made available to speak with the virtual media contingent, which meant Dunn was the first player to be asked about the decision stand.

“I think those that were collectively kneeling felt like we were kneeling to bring about attention to police brutality and systemic racism,” Dunn said, as reported by Meredith Cash at Insider.

“And I think we decided that, moving forward, we no longer feel the need to kneel, because we are doing the work behind the scenes. We are combating systemic racism. We never felt we were going to kneel forever, so there was always going to be a time that we felt it was time to stand.”

It’s certainly understandable why players would make this decision, especially given the way taking a knee has been co-opted, primarily by white members of the media, to be more about the act itself than the message behind it. But it’s still worth taking a moment to process the journey of this protest in the USWNT, the ways that white players and powerful institutions have fallen short, and where anti-racism efforts in the USWNT and women’s soccer as a whole go from here.

The broken chain

In 2016, football players at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, saw NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the anthem to protest racism, and, after some intense group discussions, decided they wanted to join him.

Participation wasn’t mandatory; if a player didn’t feel comfortable joining in on the protest, they could simply step to the side when the anthem played. The team’s main priority was for every player to take a knee to put their hand on the shoulder of the man kneeling in front of him, forming an unbreakable chain.

Duncan King, one of the few white players on the squad, wasn’t sure whether he was going to join in on the protest. He thought about it on the bus ride to the game, during warm-ups, and was still undecided when stood between two Black teammates on the sidelines before the game. But when the anthem began, he took a knee.

I travelled to Seattle to report on the Bulldogs back in 2017 for ThinkProgress, and King’s reason for taking a knee has stuck with me ever since.

“What drove me to do it was that they felt compelled to do it,” King said.

“We’d been told beforehand that if (they) did this, refs would be calling things against us, players would be gunning for them, other coaches were going to attack them. The fact that they knew the consequences and felt that they had to take a knee anyways, that was so incredibly powerful to me that I knew I had to support them and I had to be a part of that.”

Unfortunately, what was so obvious to a 17-year-old boy in Seattle has gone right over the heads of some of the best soccer players in the world. While yes, most USWNT players took a knee during the aforementioned matches, some starters remained standing, including Carli Lloyd, Kelly O’Hara, Julie Ertz, Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan, and Jane Campbell.

O’Hara explained her decision to stand on the Laughter Permitted podcast with Julie Foudy in December.

“For me, I’ve come to a place where I just fully believe that you can stand while also heartily believing that Black lives matter and being committed to fighting for racial justice and making this world a better place,” O’Hara said.

“As a team we had a lot of conversation around it, and we got to a place where we just decided that everyone should do what they felt comfortable with in terms of how they want to participate with the anthem.”

Lloyd echoed that sentiment when talking to reporters last month.

“I think the beauty of this team is that we stand behind each other no matter what,” she said. “And, you know, players decided to kneel, some players decided to stand, and at the end of the day, we have each other’s backs.”

Ultimately, both of those explanations ring hollow. André Carlisle explained why in a brilliant piece on All for XI, in which he particularly took exception to the “have each other’s backs”defense:

The latter excuse is perhaps the worst of them all because it uses the Black players — the same ones hurting and seeking solidarity and protection through unity — as a shield. Lloyd, O’Hara, and others who use this excuse seem unaware that they’re implicating themselves in a passive aggressive — to be truthful, sometimes aggressive aggressive — act. It is an almost unexplainably dumbfounding experience to have these conversations with white colleagues, in which you peel away the layers of frustration, anger and hurt that are wrapped up within and simply by existing as a Black person in this United States, only to be met with the sort of indifference that still prioritizes the traditions of whiteness — ‘Ok, I hear you and that all sounds really bad but I still have to stand for this song.’

The signal often received is an unwillingness to even approach the lowest hurdle, let alone step over it. It is difficult to face that reality so starkly, and is itself another form of hurt. Kneeling with Black teammates in front of the world is a signal to white viewers everywhere that the weight of whiteness can and should be confronted, and lessened.

Taking a knee during the national anthem is not the be-all, end-all of anti-racism activism, and participating in a protest should be an individual decision. But the fact that even after engaging in tough discussions, even after Black players opened about their trauma, some white players still prioritized their comfort over their Black teammates’ pain makes proclamations of progress feel incomplete — especially because this is a team that knows the power of sticking together.

Unity has been such a big part of the power of the USWNT’s quest for equal pay and advocacy for LGBTQ rights. And yet, when it came to protesting anti-Black racism, the chain was broken.

U.S. Soccer’s motives deserve scrutiny

This is not the first time the USWNT’s national anthem postures have been in the spotlight. Back in 2016, after Kaepernick first took a knee, Megan Rapinoe decided to take a knee during the anthem in solidarity before NWSL and USWNT games.

Last summer, Dunn recalled her conversations with Rapinoe about the protest in 2016.

“I remember our conversation when she came up to me and said, ‘Crys, I’m thinking of kneeling.’ And I remember being, just filled with so much joy for her wanting to fight … for this cause. And I also remember telling her, ‘I have to stand, dude, because I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ I’m scared for my job, I’m scared that it’s going to look differently if a Black girl on the team kneels,” Dunn said, as reported by Molly Hensley-Clancy.

“I just remember telling (Rapinoe), it hurts me to my core that I’m going to stand, but I’m supportive.”

Dunn had a right to be worried. She was new to the national team, after being infamously left off the 2015 Women’s World Cup roster, while Rapinoe was an established star. After Rapinoe took a knee, she was left off the USWNT roster for a few months, and in March of 2017, U.S. Soccer implemented an official policy forcing all players to stand during the national anthem.

U.S. Soccer didn’t repeal that policy until last summer, after Floyd’s murder, and the vote to repeal was not unanimous. So, even though Dunn says that she and the other players who were taking a knee made the decision to stand themselves, concerns over potential behind-the-scenes influence from U.S. Soccer are warranted.

After all, while the USWNT player pool has gotten more diverse over the past few years, U.S. Soccer as an institution remains overwhelmingly white and male, and seeing the players return to standing served as a stark reminder of the power imbalance within the system itself, as noted by former NWSL player Kaiya McCullough:

In its corporate offices, U.S. Soccer is taking long-overdue steps at improving its track record on diversity and inclusion, as reported by Caitlin Murray at Yahoo Sports. But the organization only started having these conversations last summer, so there’s a long road ahead. (They are just *now* in the process of hiring for a bilingual position in the communications department.)

Marketing has a long way to go, too. U.S. Soccer — with a heavy assist from sports media — has often publicized white players like Rapinoe and Alex Morgan at the expense of the team’s Black players.

Dunn — who is widely considered to be one of the best, if not the best players on the team — has recently begun calling for media to give her (and other Black players) the attention she deserves.

“With my versatility and being one of the few Black women on the U.S. Women’s National Team, what I would have loved to see happen earlier, which I still hope will happen, is to be recognized as a face of women’s soccer,” Dunn told Alana Glass at Forbes last month.

“I am recognized as a player on the national team, which is great. But what I would like to see shift is the whole idea that this sport is predominantly white or that it is a white person’s face that is the face of women’s soccer. I have earned the right to be posterized and be a part of huge campaigns and lead the way for women’s soccer and not feel like I am just a player.”

The next stage

Let’s be crystal clear (er … no pun intended?) about one thing: It is not the job of Dunn or any of the Black USWNT players to end racism or to educate white people. And, while skepticism is understandable and further reporting should be pursued, right now, it’s important to take Dunn at her word that the decision to stand for the anthem was made by Black players.

“It’s about what we're kneeling for, not that we're kneeling,” Dunn said on the Fútbol with Grant Wahl podcast. “As of now, we are prepared to stand. And that is because we do feel like the work we've been doing off the field is speaking for itself. And we don't feel like we're in the protest stage anymore.”

That work includes the Black Women's Player Collective (BWPC), an organization for Black NWSL players that was formed last October. In January, the BWPC joined the MLS’s group, Black Players for Change, to create 12 mini-pitches across the country, spaces which will focus on providing children of color with access to the game of soccer.

On Tuesday, the BWPC announced a new project, “The Call Up,” which is described as a “short form, narrative, episodic docu-series that takes an intimate look at the experiences of Black professional female athletes in the United States.” A few 16-second clips are already available online, featuring Dunn, Jasmyne Spencer, and Midge Purce, and Sarah Gorden.

The BWPC also launched its first public fundraiser on Tuesday via GoFundMe. It took less than 24 hours for it to surpass its initial $20,000 goal, and the group says that “all proceeds will directly benefit our 2021 programming that includes: hosting free soccer clinics at our mini pitches across the country, presenting opportunities for kids to attend NWSL games throughout the upcoming season, and producing media that shares insights of Black women and their experiences in both sport and business.”

So while it’s certainly disheartening that some white USWNT players refused to protest with their Black teammates, and even more infuriating that U.S. Soccer waited until 2020 to attempt to make any sort of institutional change, Black women in soccer are not sitting around and waiting for anyone to play catch-up.

“We are trying to really put projects in play that will be long lasting and really combat systemic racism, because that's ultimately what is most important, and that's why we were kneeling in the first place,” Dunn told Wahl.

“So for us to not kneel doesn't mean the conversations stop or that the job is done. It simply means that the attention was already brought up. It's 2021. If you don't know about police brutality, and systemic racism, now, then you've been clearly sleeping under a rock, or you're choosing not to. And that's fine, but we don't feel like that is our role anymore.”

If the players are ready to move on, it’s crucial that fans and media members do the same. But moving on does not mean leaving behind. It means continuing to ask white players what they are doing to combat systemic racism. It means calling out U.S. Soccer and media organizations when they don’t properly elevate Black players. It means supporting the BWPC and other Black-led initiatives. For white people in particular, it means donating money when you have it, donating time when you can, and donating your platform to elevating Black voices and calling out racism always.

The protest has stopped for now, but the sense urgency has only heightened.

Thanks so much for supporting Power Plays, friends! Talk to you again soon.

Give a gift subscription

Share Power Plays

Get 21% off for 1 year