Last night the Chicago Red Stars hosted the Seattle Reign in a late-season clash with major playoff implications. Seattle jumped out to a 2-0 win in the opening ten minutes but the home side fought their way back in the game and were rewarded with a late equalizer. The whistle blew at full-time with a final score of 2-2, with Seattle dropping points on the road and receiving a major body blow to their playoff ambitions.
But that wasn’t the big story of the night.
During the national anthem right before kickoff, Reign and USWNT midfielder Megan Rapinoe took a knee rather than stand.
Rapinoe was asked about her decision after the game and confirmed what many suspected— it was a show of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and the cause he's drawing attention to.
“It was very intentional. It was a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he's standing for right now. I think it's actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn't. We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country.”
She made further comments to Julie Foudy at ESPN reiterating her distaste for how fans and the media have treated Kaepernick for his peaceful protests before NFL games.
”It is overtly racist. 'Stay in your place, black man.' Just didn't feel right to me. We need a more substantive conversation around race relations and the way people of color are treated. We are not saying we are not one the greatest countries in world. Just need to accept that [it is] not perfect, things are broken.”
Rapinoe has expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement in the past. She went on to say that while she doesn't have direct experience of the sort of anti-black racist police practices and institutional racism that activist movements like Black Lives Matter are fighting against, she does understand what it's like to be a persecuted minority.
”Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It's important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don't need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that's really powerful.”
While the response from fans and NWSL reporters has been generally positive, there was a vocal minority that compared her (unfavorably) to Hope Solo and the recent controversy that had her suspended from the USWNT for six months. Some have called for Rapinoe to receive a comparable punishment from US Soccer or even kicked off the national team altogether.
There is an intersection between fans and observers who see women's soccer as illegitimate and an exercise in “forced diversity” and those who believe that professional athletes have an obligation to participate in public displays of uncritical patriotism and should see their careers suffer if they fail to comply. The people in that overlap on the Venn diagram are clearly having a busy day.
This line of criticism is troublesome for a number of reasons, but it's also not something that can be easily dispelled through facts or reason. Talking about why women's soccer is enjoyable and exciting and important will never convince these people. Pointing out that demanding a private citizen waive their First Amendment rights in order to glorify American freedom will never convince these people. They may say they're concerned with the preservation of American freedom, and also with the growth and vitality of American soccer, but their chief preoccupation is something much older and baser— maintaining power and privilege.