One of the wonderful things about being a fan of the United States Women’s National (soccer) Team is that they’ve always been on the forefront of social issues. Superstar Meghan Rapinoe was kneeling in solidarity way back in 2016 with Colin Kaepernick when it was still vocationally dangerous to do so, and she endured an ocean of vitriol to make that choice. The U.S. Soccer Federation condemned Rapinoe’s kneeling in a statement in which it wrote that it expects players and coaches to “stand and honor our flag while the National Anthem” is played.
What’s interesting is her teammate, Crystal Dunn, a Black player of exceptional talent, didn’t feel like she could join Rapinoe in those days. She openly said she thought she’d have lost her job if she kneeled.
Dunn had good reason to be concerned.
“I remember telling her that, ‘I have to stand, dude, because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Dunn told Bleacher Report. “I saw the way U.S. Soccer responded and treated Megan. They kept her out of some games, kept her out of camps, and I was like, ‘yes that’s bad,’ but to me, I was thinking ‘they could rip up my contract.’ So I thought I was actually going to get it much worse. And I remember telling her, it hurts me to my core that I’m going to stand, but I’m supportive.”
Then, on May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in plain sight by an officer of the law kneeling on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Just like that, terribly, awfully. The visual of that event rocked the world, and all of a sudden, it was OK to kneel in protest. It seemed either a true shock for people that murder-level racism was alive and well in law enforcement organizations and/or they decided to overtly support the BLM movement because they preferred the optics to the alternative.
The U.S. Soccer Board of Directors voted yesterday to repeal Policy 604-1, which required our players to stand during the national anthem.— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) June 11, 2020
Black Lives Matter.
We can do more and we will. pic.twitter.com/wtyfkVZmsB
For those of us in support of the cause, it was a sad but hopeful reaction to not just the murder of George Floyd, but maybe that the light was clicking on for some people. Maybe the people who had been in denial would finally wake up and realize (and admit) what had been going on for as long as history has been written. Maybe it was a way to circumvent the horrid societal pressure to fit in and to not ‘rock the boat’ and to make sure that we all remain cogs in a very racist wheel.
In the face of that, the US Women’s National Team was amazing. Their unity. Their cohesion. They were the leaders, the trailblazers. Not only did they kneel but other teams kneeled with them. Hockey teams kneeled. Football teams kneeled. It felt like we were finally getting somewhere with the kneeling of it all. Kaep gets all the credit for starting the movement, but the USWNT helped bring it to an international audience and validated the movement. People winced when Kaep kneeled. They cheered when the USWNT kneeled. I remember how exciting it was when the NWSL — the National Women’s Soccer League, in which many of the USWNT players play professionally — opened up their Challenge Cup with everyone kneeling. It felt like we had reached a critical mass as a civilization. We would be unified in this one thing. Systemic racism has to be called out and it has to go.
Recently a power drink called Biosteel signed a big endorsement contract with US Soccer, both the men’s and women’s teams, but the CEO was very clear as to what made the deal happen.
“The real driver here was U.S. women’s soccer,” BioSteel co-founder and co-CEO John Celenza said in a phone interview. “We want our brand to stand for inclusiveness, and they were just a natural fit for us.”
Boom. That’s what happens when you make history, not just on the field but as a unified force for good.
Nevertheless, the cracks have started to show. During an international friendly against the Netherlands in November, six months after George Floyd’s murder, two players decided to stand, but ESPN didn’t show the footage.
Then, during an international friendly against Colombia in January, more USWNT starters stood.
Foolishly or not, diehard fans like me had attached some of our personal identity to our fanhood, a fanhood that was consistently in sync with progressive imperatives.
When it was just a couple of players, we scoured the internet looking for an explanation. We listened to podcasts hoping for an answer.
When more stood we thought we were taking crazy pills. What had changed? Why would a player who kneeled just months ago now feel compelled to stand? How could these players stand knowing all that had transpired? More importantly, how could these white players stand as their black teammates knelt next to them?
The reasoning was vague. It was a “personal” decision (based on what criteria, no one said) one player claimed that she was so busy training that she didn’t really know the issues. Pfff.
I remember discussing with my family about how to accept it.
Could we reasonably expect kneeling to last forever?
Weren’t we just as bad as the ‘other side’ if we canceled people who stood?
Weren’t we falling victim to the same level of binary thinking as we’ve been accusing the other side of committing?
We tried to stay open-minded, but I could hear in my teenage daughter’s voice that she wasn’t rooting for certain players the way she once did. On social media, lines were very clearly drawn and the team was split into the good ones and the other ones. Not necessarily bad, per se, but not the people we hoped they were.
This past week, as the She Believes Cup opened, about half the US team stood as every member of the Canadian team knelt next to them, and I couldn’t help but be a little bothered by it. (To our Canadian brothers and sisters who consistently have had our backs through thick and thin and always bring out the best in us: we love you. You embiggen us all.)
And then three days later, against Brazil, the whole team stood. During Black History Month.
Somehow, Crystal Dunn was chosen to convey the message that they were done protesting because they were active enough.
“Moving forward, we decided 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.”
I’ve long been irritated by the false argument that kneeling is somehow dishonoring the military or the flag. That’s poppycock. One of the great demonstrations of freedom is the ability to not be compelled or goaded into false nationalism. But the new rationalization for the USWNT standing feels equally hollow.
It’s a prickly path to decide “as a team” not to kneel. I remember a decree coming out of the NFL — directly from NFL owners — in 2018, outlawing kneeling during the anthem. How are the optics on that decision now? Gee, let’s ask the people who made the decision!
That’s a whole lot of obscenely wealthy white folks right there. Every time I think of it it makes my blood boil. I’ll never forget how NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the men who own the NFL tried to keep Black players quiet. I won’t forget what a joke the Rooney Rule is. Meant to increase the number of Black coaches, it’s consciously and overtly circumvented every single offseason. Sixty-nine percent of the NFL players are Black, but there are only 3 Black head coaches and zero Black owners. It’s a repellant organization.
Other leagues, superior leagues, like the NBA, were the alternative for blue voters during the fascist Trump years.
They modeled better behavior and gave us something to cheer for. When the USWNT won the World Cup, it was like a joke to them that they’d even consider visiting Trump’s White House. Instead, they rallied in New York as powerful, vibrant, and important resistors in the face of discrimination, authoritarianism, and corruption.
Now that the USWNT has collectively ‘decided’ to stand, it feels like a bit of a letdown. Like a great pillar of the resistance has fallen, and no real reason was even given, except some nebulous baloney that resembles a Mission Accomplished PR headfake.
Here’s the thing: Ultimately, we’re not all going to agree on this because we have different values. To kneelers, values like truth and equality and accountability are paramount. To standers, it’s probably history and iconography and tradition. I can’t — and shouldn’t — try to prioritize my values over theirs any more than they can over mine, though one side pretty clearly will defy norms, values, and even codified laws and elections to try to enforce their position.
That said, to many of us, it never felt like we got to a place where kneeling was no longer needed. What was the impetus for this decision? Did racism end and I just didn’t notice? If anything, the powers that would stand in uniform opposition against movements like gay rights and the environment and women’s issues and equal pay and racial equality are in the shadows this very minute, marshaling their forces to make this country ‘great’ again. For anyone paying attention, they are a clear and present danger to democracy everywhere, to the existence of America, and freedom, in general.
I guess it just felt icky to have sent out a Black woman to be the spokesperson, as if Crystal Dunn, goddess that she is, will serve as a shield for the rest of the team. It’s even more depressing to see players like Megan Rapinoe on their feet when we have so so so so far to go as a country. Maybe they were hoping a show of unity would end the constant barrage about who’s kneeling and who’s standing. Perhaps kneeling has had its day in the sun and has outlived its usefulness. But seeing the trend over the last few months of gradually more and more white players choosing two feet over one knee, it certainly feels like the Black players might have been pressured to end the protest. One wonders if a bastardized message of inclusiveness may have guilted the Black players and more progressive players into giving up their individual kneeling decisions.
Or maybe it was just eating up the locker room and they needed it to end.
I love this team. They’re my favorite team to root for in any sport, ever. But I don’t know. Every time a gay player would stand it was like my head would explode. Every time a player I loved stayed on a knee, I loved her more for the tenacity. I fully believe in a world where we all get to make our own decisions, and I’ll root for this team with my full voice, but that won’t stop me from giving certain players side-eye for the rest of their careers. It’s not quite like those neighbors who had Trump signs on their lawns, but it resembles that same mental checkbox. I’ll never forget which houses had those signs and I’ll never forget which women stood.
Mostly, I worry that this will serve as a pressure release valve. That all the less hardcore, more public-relations-savvy or more strictly performative organizations that are systemically racist will see this as the end of an era. “Whew! We can finally stop pretending to care about Black lives. See? Even the mighty USWNT is over it.”
Against Brazil, though the whole team stood, two of the women of color did not put their hand over their hearts. Maybe those tiny indicators are all we’ll have left in a world that grinds down any brave soul that dares to strain northward of the endless plane of mediocrity. I know societal pressure always errs toward conformity, but I wish the women of the USWNT had chosen to continue the vigil, because the alternative is just an unbounded morass where we all get back to rising for the playing of the national anthem at sporting events — a tradition that dates back to recruiting drives for World War I. We’ve been playing the national anthem at sporting events for a hundred years. But that’s a fight for a different day.
Rocking the boat has merit, as does keeping your finger on the pulse of the nation. The USWNT has always been keenly tuned into the will of the people, far better than most of us, so I’ll continue to cherish them for their bravery and their foresight and their excellence, and hope that they’ve made the right decision. I know that kneeling, in and of itself, is not a solution to anything, but I’m going to genuinely miss the defiance of it and the intention of it, and the uncomfortable, constant reminder that Black men and women are treated differently in America.