For Kaiya McCullough, it almost didn’t feel like an election. She was 19, a U.C.L.A. in the second year hoping to become a professional women’s soccer player when she first decided to kneel down during the national anthem.
“I remember being so forced – it was suddenly an energy,” said McCullough. “I have to kneel. I have to do that. “
Long before George Floyd’s murder sparked global protests, long before she was inducted into the National Women’s Soccer League, and long before she began training to begin her pandemic-shortened first season with the Washington Spirit, McCullough knew she was going to take a knee also as a professional athlete.
“I was ready to accept the ramifications,” she said.
However, on Saturday she was not alone. Before the first game of the N.W.S.L. In their newly-started season, every starter of Portland Thorns, the league’s most popular team, and North Carolina Courage, defending the league title, got a knee contracted during the national anthem. The players said the action they had discussed in their locker rooms this week – and which gave each player the choice to participate or not – was a protest against “racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism against black and colored people” in America. “
“We love our country and took this opportunity to keep it at a higher level,” said the team players in a joint statement. “It is our duty to demand that the freedoms and freedoms on which this nation was founded be extended to everyone.”
McCullough, whose spirit was scheduled to face the Chicago Red Stars later on Saturday, had made her decision to kneel public weeks ago. As a 22-year-old rookie defender, she knows that her decision to kneel involves real risk and that the last N.W.S.L. Megan Rapinoe, the player who made it in 2016, did it a hail of criticism.
But the debate is over kneeling and the role Athletes can play in talks about social justice has shifted in the past few months. If the N.W.S.L. was the first professional team sports league in the United States to return to the game and start a month-long tournament in Utah. This was done with jerseys and armbands from Black Lives Matter and with players on one knee.
“This may be rubbing some fans in the wrong direction, but I honestly think I just don’t care if you see it as a flag problem at this point, not a human problem,” said Lynn Williams, a North Carolina courage forward, who was among those who took one knee before facing the thorns.
Colin Kaepernick’s decision during the national anthem before N.F.L. Games became a cultural focus in 2016. But Kaepernick’s silent action to raise awareness of racism and police brutality has spread throughout the world as development progresses Mass protests against Floyd’s murder while in police custody. Football players in France and Germany are now kneeling after goals, and entire teams in the English Premier League have kneeled together at the start of each game.
With most of the sports in the United States paused during the coronavirus outbreak, the question of how American athletes would deal with the renewed protests against Black Lives Matter remained unanswered.
After kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick during the 2016 anthem and becoming the first white player to do so, Rapinoe immediately faced a backlash, including from McCullough’s new team, the Spirit.
When Rapinoe’s team faced the ghost shortly after kneeling, Washington unexpectedly played the national anthem while the teams were in the locker room. At the time, the team said it didn’t want Rapinoe to “kidnap“the hymn.
But McCullough said the ghost that now has another majority owner said it will have no effect. “The universe was looking for me and was moved to where I did it,” she said. “I felt nothing but overwhelming support.” she made her intention to kneel clearly in interviews earlier this month.
For McCullough, the cornerstone was laid for her childhood protest in conservative Orange County, California, where she grew up with a white mother and black father and practiced a sport that remains largely white in the United States.
She said she was first gripped by the realization that the country’s promise of equality did not apply to all Americans when she was in high school during protests after Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, Mo. McCullough, decided that she could no longer stand for promises of loyalty at school.
“I didn’t consider it activism at the time,” she said. “I just thought:” I can’t stand and say that. “
It annoyed many people at their school. Teachers sometimes gave her no choice but to stand up, and a boy whom she had considered a friend broke out and told her to “go back to Africa.”
At U.C.L.A. McCullough found another culture. When she decided to kneel, her team found ways to show solidarity. They knelt first as a group and then those who wanted to stand during the hymn. Sometimes teammates knelt with her. At least one always put a hand on her shoulder.
It has not always been easy. There were sometimes calls during the away games and a flood of racist comments after TMZ picked up the story. McCullough was often nervous, she said, “but I did it anyway.” She doesn’t expect to be alone on Saturday or to evade attention.
The opening game of N.W.S.L. and the pre-game protest was broadcast nationwide by CBS – For the first time, a league game was shown on television. (McCullough and the ghost will be up against the Chicago Red Stars later in the day on CBS’s All Access streaming service.)
The N.W.S.L. The Players Association had announced that it would use the national platform on Saturday to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The N.W.S.L. said it “worked” with the union “to support a player-led initiative to support the Black Lives Matter movement and the goal of eliminating racism and injustice.”
The effort was spearheaded by black players like Williams, Sydney Leroux and Crystal Dunn – voices that weren’t always raised in a sport where many of the biggest stars are white. (Dunn, who had a knee drawn on Saturday, recently said she felt she could not join the kneeling protest of Rapinoe, the team’s most popular player, in 2016 because she was “afraid that it would will look different ” when a black girl kneels on the team. ”)
The chance of shifting support was exciting but also exhausting for black players, who were also expected to train amidst the country’s turbulence. After Floyd’s death, McCullough said, getting out of bed, let alone playing football, was sometimes difficult.
Now she is mostly excited. This moment feels different to them.
“I’ve had so many more conversations in the past month that I’ve knelt in three years,” she said.