Out Soccer Star Takes Stand

Woman's Football: A Whole Other Ball-Game
Megan Rapinoe puts principle before tradition.

With GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump calling for mass deportations of 11 million undocumented immigrants, it’s difficult to imagine how Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem has been a headline for two weeks.

But then 2016 isn’t a year like other years and the election drama has bled into almost every aspect of American life – including sports.

On September 4, Megan Rapinoe decided to stand – or rather, kneel – in solidarity with Kaepernick at a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) game. Rapinoe, featured in Curve‘s current issue and the Seattle Reign’s star midfielder, is the first white professional athlete to join Kaepernick’s ongoing protest.

“It was a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now,” said Rapinoe after she kneeled during the anthem.

As word gets out about Rapinoe – women’s professional sports continue to get short-shrift in the national media – the story may make even bigger headlines than Kaepernick because Rapinoe is a member of a U.S. team in an international sport, unlike Kaepernick.

No other member of a U.S. team has refused to stand during the national anthem in sports history, according to Sports Illustrated.

Rapinoe told SI.com that it’s her intention to kneel during next week’s September 15 national team game.

But on Aug. 7, at a game with the Washington Spirit, the team undercut Rapinoe’s protest by playing the national anthem before the teams entered the field.

“In light of Seattle Reign and U.S. Women’s National Team member Megan Rapinoe’s public declaration that she intended to ‘take a knee’ during the United States’ National Anthem tonight, we decided to play the anthem in our stadium ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent,” the team said in a statement.

As quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, the 28-year-old Kaepernick is a rising star in the NFL. So his decision last week to stop standing during the national anthem struck a chord – a loud one.

Kaepernick was clear about his reasons, drawing attention to facts about which few Americans were aware. Prior to a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, 2016, Kaepernick sat rather than the commonly accepted standing, during the playing of the national anthem.

In a post-game interview Kaepernick explained why he chose to sit. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick referred to the dozens of extrajudicial killings of black men and women by police in the past few years, which led to the formation of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Kaepernick said he would protest until he “feels like [the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent.”

In the 49ers’ final 2016 preseason game on Sept. 1, Kaepernick chose to kneel instead of sit during the national anthem as he had in previous games. Kaepernick, who had been booed while coming onto the field, said he wanted to show more respect to former and current U.S. military members while still protesting the anthem.

Kaepernick has also argued the references to slaves and slavery in “The Star Spangled Banner” mean the song should not be the anthem.

It’s hard to disagree with that argument.

As for Rapinoe, her decision to support Kaepernick is noteworthy because of her elite standing in the sports world.

As a member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, she helped the U.S. win gold at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup and 2012 London Olympics, and silver at the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

As reported in the Sacramento Bee, Rapinoe is internationally known for her crafty style of play and her precise cross to Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup quarterfinals against Brazil, which resulted in an equalizer goal and eventual win for the Americans after a penalty kick shootout.

During the 2012 London Olympics, she scored three goals and tallied a team-high four assists to lead the United States to a gold medal. She is the first player, male or female, to score a Goal Olimpico at the Olympic Games.

The 49ers released a statement about Kaepernick’s protest, “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens.

In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.” The National Football League (NFL) also released a statement which read, “Players are encouraged, but not required, to stand during the national anthem.”

Rapinoe’s team was more supportive:

“Prior to the start of Sunday’s match against the Chicago Red Stars, Reign FC’s Megan Rapinoe elected to kneel during the playing of the national anthem,” the Reign said in a statement emailed to reporters. “We recognize Megan’s decision was offensive to some and a source of inspiration to others.

“We empathize with those offended, as we understand that the playing of the national anthem is one of our nation’s most revered public celebrations, honoring the sacrifices that have been made – and continue to be made – by those serving in our armed forces.

“At the same time, we see many inspired by Megan’s decision, as the courage she exhibited by acting on her beliefs empowers others to take action as well.

“We will continue to encourage all Reign FC players to participate in the pre-match ceremony, which honors those who have served and made sacrifices on our behalf.

“We will also continue to allow players to participate in the pre-match ceremony in a manner consistent with their personal beliefs, reflecting our respect for the rights earned and defended by those fighting for our nation.

“And we will continue to support Megan in her efforts to make a positive impact on our country, encouraging her to do so in a way that provokes needed conversation about serious issues, in a manner consistent with the values of our organization.”

As for Rapinoe, her reason for standing – or rather, kneeling – with Kaepernick is inspirational as it is intersectional:

“It was very intentional,” said Rapinoe. “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.”

Rapinoe said, “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.”

Our sports figures are often heroes in name only – witness Ryan Lochte’s disgraceful behavior at the Rio Olympics. Kaepernick and Rapinoe are using their fame and the forum it gives them to speak for those whose voices have been suppressed. Washington Spirit may have chosen to undermine that free speech and the 49ers may be queasy about it. But this is what democracy looks like.

And I for one am grateful to see a lesbian representing for all of us.