On Monday – Martin Luther King Jr. Day – the U.S. women’s national soccer team opened up its 2021 season with a friendly against Colombia.
During the playing of the U.S. national anthem, seven of the starting 11 players protested racial injustice and police brutality by taking a knee. A year ago, this type of demonstration would have been prohibited under U.S. Soccer policy, which stated that players must “stand respectfully” during the playing of the national anthem. The controversial rule – which was enacted after Megan Rapinoe began kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in 2016 – was ultimately rescinded last June. As part of the reversal, U.S. Soccer said in a statement, “It has become clear that this policy was wrong and detracted from the important message of Black Lives Matter.”
In recent months, the U.S. women’s team has taken its own steps in confronting racism. In November, ahead of the team’s first game in eight months, players announced that they would be wearing “Black Lives Matter” warm-up jackets to “affirm human decency.” That followed what captain Becky Sauerbrunn recently described as “our first time – as a full team – having conversations about racial justice and racial equality.”
Rapinoe – who is currently participating in her first national team camp in 10 months – said she’s been impressed by the increased activism she’s seen in her own teammates in recent months.
“I have a huge amount of pride and respect for people going through their own journey… and feeling more comfortable speaking out about things,” Rapinoe told reporters last week. “My fellow white teammates, it is, in fact, our responsibility to stand in unity with our black teammates.”
And so, when four white players – Carli Lloyd, Kelley O’Hara, Lindsey Horan, and Julie Ertz – remained standing during the national anthem Monday night, it did not go unnoticed.
Since Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016, kneeling during the anthem has gone from being an act that could end a career or cause lost sponsorships to a gesture that has been called the “bare minimum show of unity.”
[Related: Berry’s protest helped spark change. It still cost her]
After the game, Lloyd was asked about her decision to stand. She explained that she had spent time “outside of the soccer environment” and “tucked away in the woods” in recent months before going on to say, “I think the beauty of this team is that we stand behind each other no matter what. 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.”
In a call with journalists on Thursday, Steph Yang, a reporter for Stars and Stripes FC, asked veteran defender Ali Krieger what she would say to Black fans who feel that explanations of team unity and having each other’s backs feel disingenuous in the context of some players continuing to stand for the national anthem.
“I think it’s really important topic to discuss. And to all of our Black and brown fans and supporters: I see you, and I support you, and I’m kneeling for you,” Krieger explained.
“These have been tough conversations within our team, and not everyone agrees with each other and their decisions… I also believe that – no matter how much the flag has meaning – that type of material is not as important as a human being’s life, and Black and brown lives.”
Krieger continued: “Everyone needs to do their individual work, and really sit down and educate themselves and read books and read articles and listen to powerful leaders. I’ve personally grown in the last four or five years. [I’ve] really taken a look in the mirror and have done some work. So I can only hope that my teammates and friends [and family members] do the same.”
The U.S. returns to the field tonight for a second game against Colombia.
[More upcoming soccer coverage: WSL preview: How to watch, fixture list, start time]