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Why the USWNT's activist framing set them up for failure

2020 was a never-ending disaster of a year for American society, between a global pandemic, mass protests across the nation, a once-in-a-lifetime election, and general civil unrest. It’s difficult to put into words just how damaged and divided the country's political climate has become within the past twelve months. However, one of the last things soccer fans expected was that the same divisions present in America's society would find themselves a home in America's team- the United States Women's National Soccer Team.

This would be nothing abnormal if the USWNT were any traditional, apolitical American sports team. Ultimately though, their existence as a sports entity is intertwined in their activism. On a global level, they are known as the "Equal Pay" team. They're known as being powerful women and feminists. Their biggest star is a politically-active, progressive lesbian. It's an image that has been curated for the better part of a decade.

So why was a woman present at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021- the extreme right-wing attempt at insurrection- photographed wearing four-star USWNT merchandise after getting off her flight from Washington D.C.?

Doreyne Douglas and her husband, Robert, in the San Francisco International Airport after returning from the events in Washington D.C. on January 6th, 2021 / Jessica Christian for The Chronicle

To some, it would seem nonsensical (or even paradoxical) that someone wearing USWNT merchandise would even think to align themselves with the hatred displayed by Trump’s most extreme supporters who attacked the Capitol that day. Megan Rapinoe put it as bluntly as she possibly could- "Don't bring that bullshit here."

To others, that "bullshit" was an inevitable development from a Federation and a national team that is deeply committed to being half-hearted and selective in their activism. These observations are nothing new. In fact, notoriously outspoken Becky Sauerbrunn recently said the quiet part out loud-

"I'm actually conflicted that it took us this long as a national team to get to this point because we for so long we have fought for so many things... we wear jerseys for LGBTQ, for [the] military, and we've never as a group come together to fight for social justice and racial inequality.”

To Sauerbrunn, an established member of the USWNT, this situation seems obvious. She’s lived it, she's taken the time to reflect on her shortcomings as an activist, and she’s now attempting to remedy those mistakes.

Some may still be confused on how a team that seemed so fierce in its efforts combating sexism and homophobia could display such moral and ideological inconsistencies. These contradictory stances should not come as a surprise. As athletes across the country took the knee this past year, some of the USWNT's most influential figures showed their true political colors. The bottom line is that the USWNT, as a collective, was not ready to take on activism outside their direct realm of understanding.

United States players kneel and stand while the National Anthem plays / Dean Mouhtaropoulos for AFP

This activist narrative surrounding the USWNT came to prominence back in 2015, when the team won the FIFA Women's World Cup for the first time in 16 years. Because of the sheer magnitude of their 5-2 win in the final against Japan, their newly-supported arguments for equal pay within the United States Soccer Federation gained significant international attention and support.

The basis of the equal pay argument was that the dominance, the success and the marketability of the USWNT was of stark contrast to the United States Men’s National Team. Despite being deeply unsuccessful and non-functioning, they out-earned their female counterparts by hundreds of thousands of dollars in payment from the Federation. Thus began the USWNT’s “equal pay” movement, as the team’s most prominent voices advocated for women everywhere to be paid their fair share. A large part of the USA's marketing after this shifted. It moved away from appealing to young girls and instead attempted to appeal to adult women who were inspired by their messages of feminism and female empowerment.

As this effort intensified, some players, namely Megan Rapinoe, took it upon themselves to expand this image to include different facets of social activism. In 2016, Rapinoe became one of the first professional athletes to kneel for the National Anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. This gesture originally began in protest against police brutality following the prominent deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray- all Black men murdered by police. Although many look back on this as a courageous, groundbreaking act, Rapinoe reflects on it now as something she received a lot of abuse for. The teammate she asked for approval, Crystal Dunn, was excited for Rapinoe and even wanted to participate herself, but was deeply concerned about potentially facing racist abuse or even being released from the team. As it turned out, Dunn's fears were proven correct. Between that match and the following national team match, Rapinoe was subject to booing. Lots and lots of booing. And it only got worse from there.

Rapinoe kneeling during the National Anthem against Thailand on September 15th, 2016 / Jamie Sabau via Getty

Then-coach Jill Ellis immediately punished Rapinoe by refusing to let her play for the rest of camp, a punishment that evolved into not giving the winger call-ups for at least half a year. In early 2017, US Soccer added a new policy banning kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem. Both of these incidents were early indicators that the Federation was set in keeping itself uncontroversial, apolitical, and unwilling to subscribe to a progressive branding.

US Soccer's 2017 Policy addition regarding kneeling during the Anthem

Although she received pushback from both Ellis and the Federation, Rapinoe continued her efforts with her club team, the Seattle Reign, who play in the USA's National Women’s Soccer League. In the first match back after the international break where she kneeled, she chose to not be present on the pitch at all while the Anthem was played against FC Kansas City. Rapinoe was joined in protest by Seattle Reign teammates Elli Reed, Madalyn Schiffel, Lauren Barnes and Diana Matheson, and FCKC players Sauerbrunn, Yael Averbuch, Sydney Leroux, and Desiree Scott.

These protests came to the distaste of Washington Spirit’s ownership, who were soon scheduled to play Rapinoe’s Reign. The day of that Reign vs. Spirit match, the Spirit ownership opted to play the Anthem ahead of schedule, a move that prevented Rapinoe from kneeling as she intended. The club released a statement explaining their decision to play the Anthem ahead of schedule, saying they did not want to “subject [their] fans and friends to the disrespect [they] feel such an act would represent.”

Under added pressure from the league and the very real threat of being blacklisted from the National Team, Rapinoe’s protests were stifled, and she was forced back into standing during the Anthem. In doing this, the league and the Federation went the same direction that the NFL did with Kaepernick. They made Rapinoe an example of what would happen if a player stepped out of line and demonstrated for social change outside of what they deemed acceptable.

The way Rapinoe was treated left a stain on both the NWSL and the Federation’s image in the eyes of a lot of fans. Nevertheless, they carried on with their activist branding. In the years that followed, the USWNT in particular expanded this branding when they embraced the LGBT community with limited-edition rainbow-letter Pride Month jerseys. Later on, they had players wear the names of the women that inspired them on the backs of their shirts to commemorate Women’s History Month. Throughout all this, their fight for equal pay raged on. The USWNT’s profile rose amongst socially progressive sports fans, reinforcing their already left-leaning fanbase. Before the 2019 World Cup even began, Rapinoe drew even more political praise from the left as she declared with a scoff and an eye roll that she "wasn't going to the fucking White House" if they won the World Cup.

Rapinoe on a mental high was what gave the Americans momentum throughout the majority of the tournament, and they achieved their second consecutive World Cup victory in a 2-0 win against the Netherlands. As promised, they never ended up going to the White House.

A Nike commercial released immediately after their World Cup victory reinforced the image that people assigned to the USWNT by that point. It teemed with powerful imagery, including an image of a young Black girl holding up an “EQUAL RIGHTS!” sign, various gender equality symbols, and images of fans and players from all backgrounds and races. At the end of the advertisement, you hear an isolated cry for equality: "And I believe… that [the USWNT] will be fighting not just to make history, but to change it, forever!" Followed by the commanding, hair-raising shout of a crowd’s “I Believe” chant. Nike made it clear- the USWNT was not just a team. They were a movement that encapsulated the struggle for equality and used sports as their medium to do it. At least that's how the narrative went.

Nike's 2019 "I Believe" advertisement

The momentum the team gained following the 2019 World Cup saw their hopes of equal pay become realized in a way they had never been before. Rapinoe in particular rose to international prominence with her controversy-ridden yet utterly dominant World Cup campaign. Despite all the hate she received from bored male soccer fans and the President of the United States, she used her platform as the world’s biggest women’s soccer star to push the USWNT’s equal pay agenda.

Undeterred by the shouts for equal pay from a large part of the sports world, US Soccer continued to fight tooth and nail against it. In doing this, the Federation continued to battle the USWNT in court for months following their 2019 World Cup victory. By February 2020, it became more than clear through the release of summary judgement filings that the USSF’s defense for not paying the USWNT was simply because US Soccer is a deeply sexist organization. After so many years of using cutesy language and deflecting from the issue, US Soccer’s legal team ripped off the Band-Aid and flat-out said that the women were inherently less skilled and had less ability than the USA’s men did. They didn’t bother to hide their feelings anymore. The Federation was so sick of the USWNT asking for equal pay that they resorted to attacking their physical ability as females, essentially devaluing women’s sports as a whole.

Excerpts from USSF's 2020 summary judgement filings

Naturally, the women’s sports world was outraged at this language. Sponsors like Coca-Cola publicly expressed their concerns at the Federation’s statements. Despite all the pressure, the Federation refused to fold. On March 10th, US Soccer doubled down on their comments. The following day, on March 11th, hours before the world began to shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the USWNT played their last match of the 2020 SheBelieves tournament against Japan. Each of the USWNT players exited the tunnel donning inside-out warmup shirts that showed nothing but a silhouette of the US Soccer crest, still topped with four stars. The statement was clear; the USWNT reached their level of success despite the constant efforts of US Soccer to undermine them as lesser-than compared to their male counterparts. It was a simple yet powerful protest from a group of women slighted by the constant sexist attacks from their own Federation.

The USWNT understood the impact of their protest from a social standpoint, but they clearly understood its marketing potential as well. Just minutes after kickoff, the USWNT Players Association moved to sell empty crest t-shirts, hoodies, shorts, mugs, headbands, and stickers. Outrage from the fans fuelled their sales. The on-the-fly “empty crest” campaign quickly became very successful.

At the final minutes of the Japan match, then-US Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro issued a formal apology for the deeply sexist language used in the equal pay court filing, and the apology was read aloud on air. Match commentator and former USWNT star Julie Foudy spent the rest of the match ripping into Cordeiro, and a day later, he resigned in disgrace. Turning Cordeiro into a national embarrassment and forcing him to step down gave even more weight to the USWNT’s gender equality arguments, further solidifying their place as leaders in the fight for social justice in women’s sports.

The USWNT lines up together wearing the empty crest shirts / Brad Smith for ISI Photos

About 2 days after this match, the world completely shut down as fear surrounding COVID-19 rose, putting sports on the backburner for an indefinite amount of time. Following a relatively quiet few months in the midst of worldwide lockdowns, the senseless, brutal murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer awakened something in the soul of America. By the end of May 2020, nationwide protests against police brutality and racism arose across every single major city in the country, spread to small towns, and made their way overseas. Graphic images and videos of violent acts being committed by militarized police and the National Guard were plastered across the news and social media. Coverage of protestors being beaten, shot with rubber bullets and tear gassed were the only thing on people's social media timelines for at least two weeks. The Black Lives Matter movement (rejuvenated from the original Black Lives Matter movement of 2014) was a global movement against racism and state violence. The world had never seen anything like it.

If you were an American, the events of those few weeks were impossible to ignore. The sports world reacted as such, and every major sporting federation, brand, association and league came out unanimously in support of Black Lives Matter. The inherent multiculturalism of sport was grounds for productive, positive conversation, and athletes from around the country regardless of their sport came out to dedicate themselves to anti-racism. It became an expectation that, if you were a white athlete, you would do the right thing as an influencer and use your platform to create positive social change and advocate against racism.

It seems like it would be a given that the USWNT- a team that spent the last decade branding themselves as an activist force in sports- would be in overwhelming support of these efforts. It soon became clear that was not the case. The affluent, white players of the team struggled to adjust to their newfound roles as activists for issues beyond gender inequality or homophobia. Soon enough, it became clear that many USWNT players who devoted their energy to issues like equal pay in the past were not nearly as prepared or willing to devote themselves to causes other than those that directly benefited them.

Many Black USWNT and NWSL players offered their perspectives on the issue and their words in support of the movement, as did some of their white colleagues. Said white players attended protests, posted about it on their social media, and actively strived to be better anti-racist allies. On the other hand, many white players showed blatant apathy, doing the bare minimum to show support of a movement against the murder of innocent Black Americans. The now-infamous “black square-" a solid black image posted on Black Out Tuesday in solidarity with BLM- was the most some of these players felt like “talking” about the issue. After spending such a long time passionately fighting against discrimination against women and LGBT people, one post, one hashtag, and maybe a call to "vote!" was the most they had to offer in the fight against racism. Sometimes, they didn't even want to do that. They had the platform, the money, and the ability to make a difference with their voices, but many of them refused. The only logical conclusions were: they did not agree with the idea that Black lives mattered, or that they simply did not care. Either way, the many politically active, left-wing USWNT fans had quite the rude awakening when they started to understand that their idols were full of shit.

As the pandemic raged on and the American political climate became increasingly divided, the NWSL decided that it would be an excellent idea to host a tournament that July. It was called the NWSL Challenge Cup, the first of many American sports leagues to experiment with a "bubble," where nobody could leave and nobody could come in unless absolutely necessary. One of the things in the back of everyone's mind was how the NWSL, a soccer league with a problematic past in dealing with racism, would tackle the issue.

Echoing the efforts of Kaepernick and Rapinoe in 2016, most players found it acceptable to kneel during the Anthem in protest of police brutality. A handful of NWSL stars and prominent national team players made the decision to stand during the Anthem instead of kneeling in allegiance with the BLM movement. The standing left many fans feeling betrayed, especially Black fans who looked towards these women as activist figures.

Rachel Hill of the Chicago Red Stars was the first notable player to stand for the Anthem, bringing in a great deal of approval from right-wing, Trump-supporting corners of the country. These people were more than eager to pounce on the opportunity to support an anti-anti-racist movement in what is considered a very progressive sport. Hill's actions put women's soccer on the map for a lot of people on the right. As the season went on, more and more players collected sympathy from the right for standing during the National Anthem.

Rachel Hill (right) standing during the National Anthem / Alex Goodlett via Getty

Of course, the players who stood still had to answer to their long-dedicated fanbase of liberal and left-leaning supporters. Their excuses and explanations were riddled with empty platitudes usually along the lines of "I support BLM, but…," then offering nothing of substance or critical thinking. While they defended their choice, they continued to gain respect amongst the far-right.

Many of these players also recounted their "tough conversations" and persisted that they were listening to their Black teammates, but it was clear through their actions that they were doing nothing of the sort. There was no doubt a barrier in communication, and as a result, there was no unified stand against racism and police brutality. This came to a head when beloved USWNT player Julie Ertz stood for the Anthem on national television during the Challenge Cup final. Just a few weeks prior, Ertz was holding Casey Short as she wept during the playing of The Star Spangled Banner. Ertz caught Short's tears in her hand and cried along with her. The harrowing image of Short's pain and trauma was exploited for the next month when the league used it multiple times in social media posts and match previews. It had many wondering what the point of all that was if she was going to stand when the entire country could see her instead of just the Twitch viewers or CBS subscribers. Was it all a performance? Did she ever actually care? What changed between the first match and the last one that made her stand?

After the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup was over, USWNT up-and-comer Midge Purce sat down with former USWNT player Danielle Slaton, where she described her time in the bubble as “exhausting.” Purce revealed how she and her other Black teammates were forced to take the time and explain to their apathetic white teammates why it was so important to stand in solidarity against the murder of Black people, an effort that often went in one ear and out the other.

"Teams were really fragmented regarding racial issues… that’s not a secret, it was very apparent if you watched the tournament and you saw how disjointed we were almost on every team, and I think that people don't realize… this all continued behind the scenes. We were just having conversations within our teams, and across teams, and it was exhausting, but I personally found it was very concerning, you know? Usually, when I argue with people, or I have disagreements, I’m arguing a position and we just disagree about it… but what I found is that I was in the arguments about facts, just like, the validity of truths. And that’s a problem."

The same feelings of exhaustion were echoed by Chicago Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden, who sat down with CBS Sports writer Sandra Herrera (@Sandherrera_) and recounted how her (white) teammates “missed the point” and “made it about themselves.” She expressed her criticisms in perhaps the most straightforward way out of anyone else:

"Why is it that when these things happen, every rule that is made is to make white people more comfortable? Or to make the people who stood more comfortable? Enough of that. At the end of the day, when we're seeing another video of a Black person dying, that's much more uncomfortable than your choice to stand or kneel.”

Their words are prime examples of how the many successes of the Challenge Cup bubble didn’t mitigate its many failures regarding race relations. Not only were Black players tasked with performing at a high athletic level under the eye of a raging pandemic, they were also expected to provide emotional labor for their white teammates. Their concerns were, to put it plainly, flat-out ignored. As Purce recounts, this issue got so difficult for the NWSL’s Black players to handle alone that they moved to create a unified group of Black players in circumstances like this, allowing them to support each other and stand up to racist and sexist injustices.

Later that August, that group released a statement regarding revelations about the violently racist and sexist conduct of Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen. Prominent NWSL/USWNT players Lynn Williams, Dunn, Purce, Gorden, and others, wrote in support for suspending and investigating Hansen. At the end of the statement presented the words “Welcome to our voice. We won't be silenced,” under the name of “Black Players of the NWSL.” This was the first circumstance in the NWSL’s history where the league saw an organized, unified front of Black players bravely taking a stand against racist abuse.

Black Players of the NWSL's statement regarding Dell Loy Hansen

This statement is respectable to the highest degree, but do not be fooled- it is not inspiring. It is merely another circumstance where the NWSL’s failures in dealing with racism have forced the hand of its emotionally vulnerable and worn-down Black players to stand up for themselves. They did what the higher powers of the sport and their fellow white players refused to do for them.

In the later months of 2020, Black Lives Matter continued to be one of the main topics of conversation in the sports world. The NBA had almost every single player kneeling for the Anthem, and players actively talked about change and demanding justice on social media and in league-sponsored PSAs. Even the NFL, the sport with by far the most conservative audience in America, sent a unified message by standing together and locking arms for the National Anthem during the season opener between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. The NBA and NFL's solidarity paled in contrast to the NWSL, who continued to play games in the September-October Fall Series. As expected, players stood and kneeled as they pleased, and teams still refused to present a unified stance on whether or not standing for the flag was acceptable.

The election of Joe Biden the following month seemed like it was going to be a (comparatively) positive turn for the state of American politics, but it only deepened the hole of radicalization that many Trump supporters found themselves in. Persistent accusations by the Trump camp of voter fraud only served to fan the flames of extreme right-wing conspiracies. As Inauguration Day approached, Trump's legal challenges continued to be struck down by the courts and his most staunch supporters became more and more agitated. They were very deeply convinced that this election was not a fair one.

Thousands of Trump’s most devoted followers were inspired by the man himself to take the issue into their own hands. On January 6th 2021, the day that Congress was meant to confirm Biden as the winner of the election, thousands of Trump supporters forced their way into the US Capitol building. His mob of crazed fans waltzed their way into the rotunda, through the chamber and into the office hallways. They spent hours breaking into things, looking through classified government documents, and hunting down the Congresspeople they intended to kidnap. Windows were shattered, offices were trashed, over 140 ended up injured, over six people ended up dead, and the event resulted in some of the most shocking scenes in the history of American politics.

The events of this crazed far-right attempt at a coup, one of the most appalling visuals of right-wing domestic terrorism that this country has ever seen, just didn’t seem to phase the USWNT’s standing players. In fact, it seemed to have encouraged even more of them to stand. Carli Lloyd, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett and Jane Campbell joined Kelley O’Hara and Ertz in standing during the Anthem, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of all possible days.

USWNT players standing and kneeling during the National Anthem on January 18th, 2021 / Douglas P. DeFelice via Getty

Lloyd, a player who put herself at the forefront of the USWNT’s equal pay efforts for many years, vaguely explained to the media that she's been disconnected from things this past year while recovering from injury. Still, she persisted that a rift in the team does not exist, saying “we stand behind each other no matter what.” O’Hara parroted a similar sentiment on Julie Foudy’s “Laughs Permitted” podcast, insisting that her club and country teammates were all “super supportive” of her decision to stand because the “message was clear” (referring to “BLACK LIVES MATTER” being splayed across the warmup jackets). She went on to say that it essentially didn’t matter who did what because they showed their unity by “...[going] out there and spanking the Netherlands.”

When the same question was brought up to Ali Krieger and Megan Rapinoe, they vehemently disagreed with Lloyd and O’Hara’s thoughts. Krieger in particular directly called out those on the team who stood, and revealed that, despite the many conversations they have had, the ones who are standing were still not listening. She reflected on her own personal journey as an ally, saying “she’s had to look in the mirror” and is constantly urging her white teammates to do the same- clearly implying that they have not yet done that. The defender also took it upon herself to apologize to Black fans who felt disrespected and hurt by the standing, acknowledging that those who stand are negatively affecting a meaningful portion of the USWNT’s fanbase.

The team’s controversy around standing and kneeling certainly didn’t end there. In the first match of the February 2021 SheBelieves Cup, The USA’s fractured lineup stood in stark contrast to Canada’s display of full team unity. As the Canadians locked arms and kneeled together, the USWNT did what they’ve been doing and let each player decide as individuals whether or not they wanted to protest.

The next game produced an abrupt change in the team’s approach to the Anthem issue. Before the USA’s second match of the tournament against Brazil, viewers expected to see the team individually deciding to kneel or stand like they had been for months. Instead, they saw each player standing for the Anthem, seemingly out of nowhere. The two players at the end of the lineup, Christen Press and Crystal Dunn, were the only two players in the row not holding their hands over their hearts.

Press and Dunn also happened to be the only two players available for media questions after the match. Dunn gave a lengthy response to questions regarding the kneeling that seemed to boil down to “it was a collective player decision” and that all parties were “comfortable” because everyone was “doing the work behind the scenes.” However, despite claiming she was comfortable with where the team was, Dunn revealed in the same presser that the team had never spoken about the issue in depth as a collective.

Transcript of Dunn's presser

Dunn’s words were uncharacteristic, likely to no fault of her own. Given the odd tone of her statement, it wouldn’t be surprising if those who kneeled felt additional pressure from the Federation to resume standing, even if it wasn’t explicitly made clear that they had influence. Regardless, the words from Midge Purce, Sarah Gorden, and Ali Krieger regarding the exhausting nature of the kneeling issue all seem to ring true. The responsibility being put on the team’s kneeling players to lead conversations about racism and police violence could simply have been too much for them to deal with, especially knowing that the team’s standing players responded with nothing but apathy and empty promises. At the end of the day, it was the team’s kneeling players- specifically their Black players- who were forced to sacrifice their morals for the sake of team unity.

The USWNT is now at a crossroads in its public image. Despite the fervent persistence of the team’s standing players that there is no ideological split between the kneeling and the non-kneeling players, Black players and their allies have made it abundantly clear that there is. It's worth questioning if there's a point to their activist branding if they are unable to unify against the state sanctioned murder of Black Americans, which should be one of the easiest issues of our time to agree on.

This brings us back to the woman at the Capitol photographed in USWNT merch. Does this one woman represent the views of the entire USWNT/NWSL fan base? Absolutely not. In fact, it is well known that the majority of the USA's supporters are, at the very least, not this far right. But given what is now apparent about the morals of the USWNT's players, it is considerably easy to argue that their decision in resisting the Black Lives Matter movement was a natural evolution to that woman feeling comfortable in wearing that sweatshirt.

If the photo of that woman tells us anything, it tells us that the USWNT's inability to deny racism as a collective has introduced a supporter-base grounded in that exact same racism. It's impossible to know what truly is in the hearts of those who insist on standing for the Anthem, especially considering how inconsistent they each have been with their messaging. But what is undeniable is that many members of the USWNT are comfortable with support of white nationalists, fascists, and right-wing extremists, and they have nothing to blame for that except their own actions.

Additional thanks to Meg (@frawnts) for proofreading and editing.



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