Let's talk about kneeling.
In the U.S. the NWSL and MLS have been the first to return, and the NBA and WNBA are gearing up for their returns. Both the NBA and WNBA have announced they will be allowing players to have names or statements on their jerseys, and there will likely be other events and moments through the two seasons that are designed to give respect to the movement at hand. The players seem to be excited about this league lead initiative, but some in the NBA have stated they are not fans of the control the NBA has, and the limited messages they can place on their jerseys.
The MLS, which returned after the NWSL held a very powerful ceremony that highlighted the black players in their league to kick off the tournament. They have also sported captains bands that support Black Lives Matter, and players on the Philadelphia Union surprised the league and fans alike with names of victims on their jerseys instead of names. Each team has their own gear that states Black Lives Matter as well.
The NWSL held the unique responsibility of also being the first team sport back and took on the responsibility of showcasing how they wanted to address the issues as a league. The NWSL came together with the Player Associations for both their league and the National Team and worked to come to an understanding of how the players wanted to support and speak about the movement and worked with them to understand how they could properly support they players in whatever ways they needed and wanted.
One of the most notable ways was for the players to make their own decisions during the anthem to stand or kneel. They announced that this was a player lead initiative, and they would support them individually in their decisions. Each player and team in the league was able to do what they wanted how they wanted to. While this is a huge step for progress, it is long overdue. Truthfully I do not think much credit can be given to NWSL for this decision. They had an opportunity to show the world they were on the right side of history back in 2016 when Megan Rapinoe was the first and only player in the league, but instead, they said and did nothing official, and let USSF make the final decision on the matter, ending it. Now they are simply doing the right thing for the players, the league, and the fans.
The other ways in which the league worked with players to support the movement, was to provide every team with warm-up shirts that said Black Lives Matter, they also provided each player and staff member on all teams with armbands that said, Black Lives Matter. Teams were also able to wear their own Black Lives Matter if they had them.
For the opening game of The Challenge Cup though the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage came together and released a joint statement about their decision kneel together, showcasing the power and unity among the player and teams within the league on this issue. Following that there has been little uniformity among teams in their decision making during the anthem. Some teams sent their whole roster and staff to be on the field for the anthem, and others continued to only have their starting 11. The referees who stand between the players also eventually joined in on the decision to kneel.
However, while a majority of the players and referees across the league have decided to kneel before each game, not all did (as was their choice). Some decided to stand, and those who stood to receive scrutiny and insults from some fans, who decided that kneeling in some way meant that a player or person is not racist, and those who don't are automatically racist. They also received positive feedback from many, who may or may not be fans for seemingly supporting or siding with them. As the backlash grew, the league amended the policy allowing players to stay in the locker room as well if they so desired. To the best of my knowledge, I have not seen or heard anything about any players taking the league up on this offer. But players did continue to stand, and some made attempts to provide statements, expressing where they were coming from. Additionally, fans took even more offense to players who knelt during their first game and then decided to stand for the second.
Outside of a few players choosing to make individual statements, there was not a ton of coverage or discussion on the issue, likely a league and player decision. Rachel Corsie, and Utah Royals and Scotland National Team member, did do an interview in which she discussed her decision and reasoning, making a point to explain that by standing she in no way intended to appear to be against Black Lives Matter. She was also one of the few players who was consistently wearing Black Lives Matter armband through her time in the tournament. However, most players, including her high profile teammate on the Royals, and U.S. Women's National Team member Kelley O'Hara, stayed silent on the issue and their decisions.
Julie Ertz and Casey short, who unintentionally provide the most impactful moment of the tournament when the two were seen kneeling together and embracing, while short was visibly emotional over the moment at hand. Rachel Hill, a teammate on Short's other side stood with one hand over her heart and the other on Short's shoulder. Trying to support her teammate in an extremely emotional moment. After the game, Hill did attempt to explain her decision to stand and place a hand on Short in a post on social media as well.
While no one truly owes anyone anything in terms of an explanation of the decision to kneel or stand during the anthem, I cannot help but think, participating in dialog in some way could help to push more dialog forward. I know this is a slippery slope since it seems that most times a player does engage in these conversations, those who are upset are not concerned about the actual personal thought process, and those who could benefit from the explanation will not hear it either way. Instead, players get caught in the middle of fans and viewers trying to make a point, good or bad, and using them as an example. The players who have spoken out about their decision to stand or kneel have not received different or more understanding reactions from fans and critics on either side of the argument.
For me, as a fan watching, I will always feel that the image of a team kneeling together is extremely powerful, however, I also believe that seeing players kneel and stand together in a moment of unity is far more important than kneeling together in uniformity.
I think back to a few months ago when the players in the league would never have thought about taking a knee, some out of fear others out of indifference, because of how Megan Rapinoe was dealt with when she took a knee by USSF. I also can't help but think how quickly perceptions have changed, when (mainly football) players who were kneeling were the ones being attacked, and players who did not kneel but stood with their teammates seemed to be viewed as supportive.
It just seems like people are missing the point in its entirety. The importance of what is happening before games begin in the NWSL is not that players are or are not kneeling. It is the fact that the players are putting in the work to have these tough conversations with their teammates, and to ensure that no matter what they decide to do they are protected. No one is at risk of getting in trouble because they are going against the norm. The players came together to ensure that they could focus on the tasks and issues at hand, and not have extra distractions worrying about how the league will treat them. That is HUGE.
To focus on who is kneeling and who is not takes away from the bigger picture, and it detracts from what the players have worked hard to accomplish for themselves. They deserve recognition not critiques in this area. It is easy to look at a group of people and judge them without knowing what is happening, but if we as fans want to support the players at this moment, we need to see what they are doing together as an entire league and try to understand how to get to that point on our own.
The NWSL players are setting an example of what it means to coexist, and their fans should follow.