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Shirts, armbands, and kneeling: is NWSL truly ready to commit to antiracism?

The league and clubs have opened up the conversation, but are they ready to take the next step, and the next?

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2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinals Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

In the middle of a worldwide health pandemic, America has been forced to face its history of racism head-on.

After George Floyd was suffocated to death by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, things changed in the United States. Unfortunately, the names of Black and Brown men, women, and children slain by law enforcement with impunity serves as a long list of injustices committed by America.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and these critical conversations about racism, the National Women’s Soccer League became the first domestic league to return to play. Their return to play included a public display of the Black Lives Matter movement before every game of the Challenge Cup. Additionally, many players have opted to kneel during the national anthem.

The league is almost four years removed from the first time Megan Rapinoe took a knee. The question now is whether the league and individual teams are ready to commit long-term to anti-racism.

Twitter fire

Like many other sports leagues, NWSL teams and players posted social media statements. Some were great, some were terrible and some sparked ongoing dialogue. On May 31, Sky Blue FC tweeted their statement of solidarity and anti-racism:

“Sky Blue FC and our players strive to represent the diversity of our communities and promote diversity. We stand in solidarity with the Black community and communities of color. We stand against racism, hatred, and systemic oppression. We raise our voice to demand change and accountability, and to speak against injustice.”

The statement doesn’t directly address the killing of George Floyd or the Black Lives Matter movement, but it is a step made towards the larger conversation. Or, at least that was the original intent. However, it was released after Sky Blue FC captain Carli Lloyd made her own statements and came under massive fire by fans and media alike.

The US National Team member, who joined her hometown team in 2018, tweeted (now deleted) “It doesn’t matter your color. Respect one another. Love one another. #SayNoToRacism.”

Fans and media members expressed their discontent with Lloyd’s statement, to which Lloyd began blocking Twitter handles en masse and retorted with (an also now deleted) tweet, “Don’t come at me saying I’m a racist. I have friends who are all different races. Do not call me white privileged because I didn’t tweet on an approved timeline or say what you wanted. I treat people equally regardless of their color. I’m signing off. Enough is enough.” After deleting the tweets, she put out a more thoughtful statement.

Lloyd’s initial tweet and her reaction represented a microcosm of well-meaning non-Black people of all colors. Often people want to show up for Black communities, but their words lack the full depth of racism and often elicit reactions that ultimately distract from the issue at hand.

However, neither Lloyd’s tweets nor the vehement bashing of them are the actual work of anti-racism. If anything, the incident should be an on-ramp for clubs like Sky Blue FC and organizations like the NWSL to get serious about talking internally and externally about anti-racism, especially as neither was prepared for the backlash Lloyd received.

In a conversation with Sky Blue FC general manager Alyse LaHue last month, it became evident that women’s soccer is long overdue for some difficult conversations and thoughtful policy changes.

Deeds not words

In addition to their solidarity statement, Sky Blue FC announced they would honor Juneteenth as a holiday for the first time. Director of operations Julie Evans first mentioned the idea of celebrating Juneteenth during a 2019 planning session.

“We’re always discussing, as a staff, ways that we can do more community-based events or even the theme nights around some of our home games. That’s actually where it came up was Julie saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got a game around this date. Why don’t we recognize Juneteenth?’ And a lot of our staff looked around and said, ‘What is Juneteenth?’,” said LaHue.

Although it never came to fruition in 2019, as the club reckoned with its role in diversity, celebrating Juneteenth moved to the top of the list. The club announced they would officially honor the day General Order No. 3 was read aloud in Galveston, Texas, proclaiming enslaved people were free - two months after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Union.

Although LaHue is proud she has built a culture where staff can offer such ideas comfortably, she is far from satisfied that things like celebrating Juneteenth were not implemented sooner. She doesn’t want Sky Blue FC or women’s soccer for that matter to be comfortable with being reactive.

To that end, Lahue remains focused on having a diverse staff. In her first full season as general manager, she is very proud of the number of women Sky Blue has hired as coaches, technical staff, and front office staff.

“I’m really proud of the efforts we’ve made to find the right women for the jobs because, in a women’s pro league, I feel like we’re not quite hitting the standard of how many women are necessarily working within this league,” said LaHue.

However, gender diversity does not always lead to racial and ethnic diversity and LaHue is conscious of that. In her goal to truly represent the New York/New Jersey region on the pitch and on staff, there is still work to be done.

“That starts with me at my level and I take responsibility for making sure that we bring more diversity onto the table, and to have a voice as part of this platform. And that means people here on the inside that are paid by this club to work here,” said LaHue.

LaHue is also committed to having more diversity and inclusion training for her staff, her players, and hopes to be an advocate for league-wide initiatives as well. When she reached out to commissioner Lisa Baird about her plans, she learned that Baird and the Players Association had initiatives in motion for the Challenge Cup.

“I think that’s great and that’s something that obviously I want to support and be a part of. It does sound like players from around the league are having their voice heard … I’m really looking forward to some of the ideas that they come up with for this,” said LaHue.

Publicly, that turned out to be the Black Lives Matter warm-up t-shirts and armbands. Many players have also chosen to kneel during the national anthem. However, neither the league nor the Players Association has so far publicly commented on any specific league-wide conversations taking place at the Challenge Cup in Utah.

Commitment to allyship

Like Sky Blue FC, the Chicago Red Stars did much reflecting before traveling to Utah for the Challenge Cup. On June 4, the Chicago Red Stars released a statement on their commitment to allyship.

“We took #BlackoutTuesday as an opportunity to come together and look critically at ourselves as an organization and to begin to understand how we’ve played our part in allowing the same, unacceptable narrative of racism to permeate our country,” the club said.

The statement was a promise of small yet tangible first steps. These included a commitment to meaningful education, better representation, and ongoing solidarity. True to their word, the club used social media to host virtual trainings, uplift literature that addresses critical race theory, and more. Local Black business leaders, artists, and professionals have been highlighted through the organization’s social media channels. In many ways, the Red Stars have been the most consistent and public in their allyship strategy throughout the league.

“The nice thing about our organization is that we’re small and we’re nimble,” said Lindsay Goldner, the director of marketing and communications for the Red Stars. “So for us to be able to make changes to things like our social content strategy, for example, it’s really manageable for us to do that in a quick fashion. The idea was to come out with a statement that was a commitment to things that we could do quickly to reflect that we were ready to start on this journey.”

All the more reason that their pivot to privacy in the bubble seemed odd. Multiple times now, players who stood for anthem and were requested by media were not made available or declined to speak, including Rachel Hill, Aubrey Bledsoe, and Kelley O’Hara (though Hill later released a public statement on her own). And, similarly to Sky Blue FC, the club found itself on the defense on social media.

Picture worth 1,000 words

The Red Stars played the Washington Spirit in the first evening game of the Challenge Cup. As earlier in the Houston vs. Utah game, players warmed up in Black Lives Matter shirts. As earlier, most players and coaches knelt during the anthem. But unlike earlier, as the camera panned down the line of starters, it caught an unforgettable moment where Casey Short began to cry and teammate Julie Ertz embraced her and cried alongside her.

The video and image swirled around social media, including in the initial highlights package from the NWSL itself.

Once again, Twitter comments ran the gamut, and once again the conversation focused on what white women did or did not do, rather than sitting with the pain Short knew all too well, but could no longer hide. The conversation was continuing absent quotes from Short, Ertz, or anyone other players from the Red Stars.

The decision to limit player engagement with the media after the match seemed calculated and also counter to the commitment to allyship Chicago launched and had practiced leading up to the Challenge Cup. Once the league decided to have all players wear a uniform of support for the Black Lives Matter message, all the clubs and the NWSL itself brought conversations of racism, police brutality, and more to the pitch.

According to Goldner, because the players are the public-facing representation for the club, the staff left it up to the players to decide when and how they would engage in conversations about racism, police brutality, or their decisions to kneel or not during the national anthem. The response is immediately disappointing, without question. Goldner and her staff are also very aware of that fact. Nevertheless, they have committed to letting players dictate how they engage or don’t.

“I’m really proud of is that our organization is committing to a very authentic experience that isn’t about optics…. What we’re offering them really is that, as they’re ready to share their thoughts or their experiences, whether it be as a group or as individuals, that the club is there to amplify their voice…. It’s really a personal journey and we’re leaving that up to them,” Goldner said.

Power in Silence

In a sport that struggles to reach equity in media access, this interruption in communication has been frustrating . That said, it is also a powerful statement for the club to acknowledge there are conversations and experiences that need to happen privately. What is even more remarkable is that at a time where the stakes are so high for women’s sports to put on a great product and gain fans with the entire sports world presumably watching as the league is setting the bar by being the first back, the Red Stars have stuck to their plan.

“Sure, I could look at it from a strategic communications lens right and say what would be best is if we said x,y, and z, or this person or that person got in front of the camera or spoke to this reporter or what have you. But this isn’t a normal situation,” said Goldner.

She added, “While that doesn’t necessarily always come off the best. I just can’t forget about the humans behind the experience. And that’s where my focus is. This is way too big and too emotional and too personal to try to strategize it, you know?”

Indeed. On June 30, Casey Short shared what that moment and those tears meant to her and Julie.

Moving forward

As time has passed and the Challenge Cup enters the knockout stage, Red Stars players have found ways on their own time and through personal social media or publications they choose to have a broader conversation.

What the women’s soccer world is hopefully learning is conversations and decision-making that are informed by anti-racism are complex. However, one cannot practice allyship if they only demand better of those they deem less “woke” than themselves. The true work is at the intersection of who we are. Black players and players of color have different experiences than their white teammates, but also from each other.

Anti-racism work is not exploiting the pain of Black and Brown bodies. Asking Black and Brown players to prove racism exists by recounting their experiences with racism is not the work, especially if we as a society aren’t really listening. Black and Brown people should not have to continuously re-experience their trauma to be heard.

The work is talking to a player that experienced what Carli Lloyd did in saying something thoughtlessly. The work is checking-in with LaHue and her goal of making her club more representative of its market. The work is continuing to ask Goldner, the Red Stars staff, and all the clubs in general to make players available.

The work is also taking a look at your newsrooms and your staff - who they are, how you pay them, what they write. If your first inclination is to contract someone else to write anti-racism stories, then do it. Pay them fairly and also challenge yourself to ask why you and/or your staff wasn’t already equipped to handle the topic.

Finally and most importantly, the work is realizing that we all have work to do. We must start where we are in our journey, regardless of our race or privilege. We can forgive those who start and make mistakes, but refusing to start is unacceptable.