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
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]