N.W.S.L. Players Kneel for Anthem as League Returns to Field

It almost didn’t feel like a choice to Kaiya McCullough. She was 19, a U.C.L.A. sophomore with hopes of becoming a professional women’s soccer player, when she first decided to take a knee during the national anthem.

“I remember being so compelled — it was an energy all of a sudden,” McCullough said. “I need to kneel. I need to do this.”

So, long before George Floyd’s killing sparked worldwide protests, long before she was drafted into the National Women’s Soccer League and long before she started training for the start of her pandemic-shortened first season with the Washington Spirit, McCullough knew she would take a knee as a professional athlete, too.

“I was willing to accept whatever consequences came with it,” she said.

On Saturday, though, she was not alone. Before the N.W.S.L.’s first game of its rebooted season, every starter from the Portland Thorns, the league’s most popular team, and the North Carolina Courage, the league’s defending champion, took a knee during the national anthem. The players said the action, which they had debated this week in their locker rooms — and which gave each player the choice to take part or not — was a protest against “racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America.”

“We love our country and we have taken this opportunity to hold it to a higher standard,” the players from the teams said in a joint statement. “It is our duty to demand that the liberties and freedoms this nation was founded upon are extended to everyone.”

McCullough, whose Spirit was scheduled to face the Chicago Red Stars later on Saturday, had made public her decision to kneel weeks ago. A 22-year-old rookie defender, she knows her decision to continue kneeling comes with real risks, and that the last N.W.S.L. player to do it, Megan Rapinoe in 2016, had faced a hailstorm of criticism.

But the debate around kneeling and the role athletes can play in conversations about social justice has shifted in recent months. When the N.W.S.L. became the first professional team sports league in the United States to return to play, kicking off a monthlong tournament in Utah, it did so with Black Lives Matter shirts and armbands, and with players on one knee.

“That might rub some fans the wrong way, but I honestly think that if you see it as being a flag issue and not a human issue at this point, I just don’t really care,” said Lynn Williams, a North Carolina Courage forward who was among those who took a knee before facing the Thorns.

Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the national anthem before N.F.L. games became a cultural flash point in 2016. But Kaepernick’s silent action, intended to raise awareness of racism and police brutality, has surged and spread around the world in the wake of mass protests of Floyd’s killing while in police custody. Soccer players in France and Germany now kneel after goals, and entire teams in England’s Premier League have taken a knee together at the start of each match.

But with most sports in the United States on pause during the coronavirus outbreak, the question of how American athletes would handle the renewed Black Lives Matter protests remained unanswered.

After Rapinoe knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick during the anthem in 2016, becoming the first white player to do so, she faced immediate backlash, including from McCullough’s new team, the Spirit.

When Rapinoe’s team faced the Spirit soon after she began kneeling, Washington unexpectedly played the national anthem while the teams were in the locker room. At the time, the team said it did not want Rapinoe to “hijack” the anthem.

But McCullough said the Spirit, which now has a different majority owner, has said she will face no repercussions. “The universe was looking out for me, getting drafted to where I did,” she said. “I’ve felt nothing but overwhelming support.” She made her intention to kneel clear in interviews earlier this month.

For McCullough, the seeds of her protest were sown during a childhood in conservative Orange County, Calif., where she grew up with a white mother and black father, playing a sport that remains overwhelmingly white in the United States.

She said she was first seized by the realization that the country’s promise of equality was not true for all Americans when she was in high school, during protests after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. McCullough decided she could no longer stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at school.

“I didn’t think of it as activism then,” she said. “I just thought, ‘I can’t stand and say this.’”

It angered many people at her school. Teachers sometimes gave her no choice but to stand, she said, and a boy she had considered a friend once erupted at her, telling her to “go back to Africa.”

At U.C.L.A., McCullough found a different culture. When she decided to kneel, her team found ways to show solidarity. They first took a knee as a group, and then those who wanted to stand during the anthem did. Sometimes, teammates knelt with her. Always, at least one put a hand on her shoulder.

It wasn’t always easy. During away games, there were sometimes catcalls, and there was a deluge of racist comments after TMZ picked up the story. McCullough was often nervous, she said, “but I did it anyway.” She does not expect to be alone on Saturday, or to escape notice.

The N.W.S.L.’s opening game, and the pregame protest, was aired nationally by CBS — the first time a league game has been shown on broadcast television. (McCullough and the Spirit will take on the Chicago Red Stars later that day, on CBS’s All Access streaming service.)

The N.W.S.L. Players Association had said it planned to use Saturday’s national platform to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The N.W.S.L. said it had been “collaborating” with the union “to assist a player-led initiative in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the goal of eliminating racism and injustice.”

The efforts have been led by black players like Williams, Sydney Leroux and Crystal Dunn — voices that have not always been elevated in a sport where many of the biggest stars are white. (Dunn, who took a knee on Saturday, said recently that she felt she could not join the kneeling protest by Rapinoe, the team’s most popular player, in 2016 because she was “scared that it’s going to look different if a black girl on the team kneels.”)

The opportunity presented by the shift in support has been exhilarating, but also exhausting, for black players who have also been expected to train in the midst of the country’s turmoil. After Floyd’s death, McCullough said, it was sometimes hard to get out of bed, much less to play soccer.

Now she mostly feels excited. To her, this moment feels different.

“I’ve had so many more conversations in the last month than in the three years that I was kneeling,” she said.