Start to NWSL Challenge Cup is overshadowed by focus on who did or didn't kneel during anthem

Positioned as the first professional sports league in North America to return to play after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports around the country, the National Women's Soccer League was always going to be in the spotlight on Saturday.

That it was the first U.S. pro league to return to play since the killing of George Floyd and protests about his death and that of others meant that there was going to be scrutiny about the stance players took during the playing of the national anthem.

Considering these were the first games of any kind they played against outside opposition all year, Saturday's games in Utah were surprisingly good, the defending champion North Carolina Courage over the Portland Thorns -- of course -- and the Washington Spirit over the 2019 runner-up Chicago Red Stars -- deservedly.

But anything that place during the 180 minutes at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman was overshadowed by what took place before the two games.

The starters for the Courage and Thorns all knelt during the national anthem of the opener on CBS. The wide shot of the players kneeling in their "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts between the refereeing crew members, who all stood, appeared prominently in many newspapers on Sunday morning.

Before the second game, which kicked off at 10 p.m. ET, too late to get in print editions of many East Coast papers, Chicago defender Casey Short broke down in tears and was consoled by teammate Julie Ertz, with whom she plays on the U.S. national team, as they knelt. Next to them stood teammate Rachel Hill, the only Red Star starter who didn't kneel. (Three Spirit starters also stood.)

The scene was powerful, emotional and awkward, and the images of Ertz comforting Short while teammate Kealia Watt stared at Hill looking on in some shots and putting her hand on Short's shoulder in others will be with us for years.

After the game, Red Stars coach Rory Dames said his players had been struggling all day with what was the right thing to do. How do they show solidarity for and how do they support the Black Lives Matter movement and what has been going on? He admitted everything took an emotional toll and showed in the performance of his players, particularly in the first half.

"I think everybody’s exhausted," he said afterwards. "I think we were exhausted before we got here."

While Dames spoke to the media -- virtually -- Short, Ertz and Hill did not. (In Hill's case at least, it was noted she did not decline to speak.) Not making all NWSL players -- among the most thoughtful athletes in American sports -- available to speak to the media afterwards was a missed opportunity -- even given the COVID-dictated setup for the tournament.

What were the discussions among the Red Stars players that took place before the game? How were they affected by the images of all the Courage and Thorn players on their knees? Were the minds of players -- starters or reserves -- changed in any way about standing or kneeling? What was going through their minds as they knelt or stood and watched the others? Did they agree with the playing of the national anthem in the first place?

Whatever stance players took -- knee or no knee -- some of the attacks they received on social media were vile.

The NWSL Players Association issued a statement supporting the "clear statement that Black Lives Matter and each player making a personal decision about whether stand or kneel during the national anthem."

Red Stars CEO Arnim Whisler, the NWSL's longest-standing owner, took to Twitter to support all his players and staff, saying that to read anything into the stance they took and assume anyone knew what was in their hearts was not fair or correct. He noted all players wore "Black Lives Matter" T-shirts and knelt during the moments of silence.

Weeks ago, MLS commissioner Don Garber said the national anthem won't be played at the MLS is Back Tournament, which begins July 8 in Florida.

“There's not going to be any fans in the stands," he said, "so we didn't see that it would be appropriate. And I feel today no different than I felt then, which is if a player is looking to express their right to kneel during the national anthem, they should have the right to do so."

The playing of the national anthem has been a thorny issue for the NWSL before.

In 2016, when Megan Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign came to the Maryland SoccerPlex to face the Spirit, shortly after she knelt for the first time on the national team, then-owner Bill Lynch had his staff play the anthem after the teams finished their warm-ups and went to their locker room, saying he didn't want Rapinoe to “hijack this tradition” of playing the national anthem.

Whisler said judging someone you don’t know by the stance they take on the national anthem is wrong.

"Making all players stand is wrong," he added. "Making all players kneel is wrong. And, yes, I think the anthem should be separate from players walkouts or not in stadiums for non-national [team] games."
7 comments about "Start to NWSL Challenge Cup is overshadowed by focus on who did or didn't kneel during anthem".
  1. Santiago 1314, June 29, 2020 at 6:48 a.m.

    Humm.??? If the Idea was To gain Exposure for "Police Killing Black Men", then why pass up the Post Game interview??? ... Bad PR ...  
    "Exhausted before they got there" Pretty Much Stereotyping Women as "Too Emotional" ... (Look for Coach to be Fired)
    Were they "Too Emotional" after the Game.???
    This whole thing is "Too Emotional"; Driven by this Segment of the US Population, That Can Not even Explain themselves or the Reason they are Protesting...
    MilLEMMINGalls (Meh-Lemmon-Ning-Gals)(Leading the US over the Cliff to Socialism)
    BLM,Inc. Is a Organization led by "Trained" Marxist... Look it up, Educate yourself.

  2. John Kukitz replied, June 29, 2020 at 7:25 a.m.

    Thank you Santiago 1314 for sharing the truth.

  3. Mark Buckley replied, June 29, 2020 at 8:39 a.m.

    Yes, Saniago 1314 please educate yourself. Stop watching one news amaerica and educate yourself.

  4. Santiago 1314 replied, June 29, 2020 at 10:12 a.m.

    @Mark ... Don't Believe Me, Go look for yourself, the UTuber is Black:  YoungRippa59
     Hope you didn't get Fooled into Donating.!!!


    (NYPost 6-25-20) Patrisse Cullors "We are trained Marxists. We are super-versed on, sort of, ideological theories. And I think that what we really tried to do is build a movement that could be utilized by many, many black folk,” Cullors added in the interview with Jared Ball of The Real News Network." 
    “The first thing, I think, is that we actually do have an ideological frame. Myself and Alicia in particular are trained organizers,” she said, referring to BLM co-founder Alicia Garza.
    She wrote a Book on it: "While promoting her book “When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir” in 2018, Cullors described her introduction to and support for Marxist ideology."

  5. Jack DiGiorgio replied, June 29, 2020 at 10:55 a.m.

    100% agree with your detailed statement. Also, at this point. let the National Anthem played only for International games and not the "in house" USA league games, just the way it's done all over the world.

  6. Santiago 1314 replied, June 29, 2020 at 11:21 a.m.

    @Jack, I agree with you ... If I were Marketing Genius; I would have Specific Salute to Service Game ... Play National Anthem that Day; Maybe at National Finals

  7. frank schoon replied, June 30, 2020 at 8:17 a.m.

    Mark, what scares me that you don't even know this fact about the leadership founder of BLM. So instead of accusing someone of watching "one news America' and  needs to educate himself, I think you need to seriously question where you're getting your news from that didn't inform you properly on this fact.    I have never watched 'one news Ameria, but likewise I don't watch MSM news either and that's is probably where you get your news or lack of news from, depending on whose ox is being gored at the moment. 

    Before you begin to arrogantly tells others to educate themselves for you yourself lack certain facts ,  educate yourself first on the subject fully.....

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