A conversation ‘20 years overdue’: USWNT activism cannot stop at women’s rights

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Perhaps just as iconic in the sports world as Colin Kaepernick’s billowing afro is a hairdo quite the opposite: Megan Rapinoe’s slick, platinum blond cut. However, despite their differences — Kaepernick a Black civil rights activist and former NFL quarterback, and Rapinoe a white, gay soccer player part of the U.S. women’s national team, or USWNT — Rapinoe followed Kaepernick’s suit by taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to represent the need for criminal justice reform. Kaepernick has since been blackballed by the NFL for his actions and remains unemployed, yet continues to be a prominent activist in the fight for Black lives and racial justice. Rapinoe is back on the USWNT and has further utilized her platform to support LGBTQ+ and women’s rights.

A year ago today, platinum-blond-turned-pink-haired Rapinoe netted two penalty kicks in a narrow victory against Spain in the 2019 FIFA World Cup’s round of 16, punching the USWNT’s ticket to the quarterfinals. Though heavy favorites to win it all after an especially dominant pool performance and a rich history of international success, the USWNT was playing for more than just a title. Just months prior to their World Cup send-off, team members came together to file a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. It alleged that the federation “has caused, contributed to, and perpetuated gender-based pay disparities,” further fueling the fire to bring home a World Cup trophy.

The USWNT has historically been praised for its activism on and off the field by political leaders and the general population alike. This March, players wore their warmup jerseys inside out to protest unequal pay between men’s and women’s soccer teams. Following its World Cup victory in 2015, Barack Obama noted how the team had “taught all America’s children that ‘playing like a girl’ means you’re a badass.” Younger LGBTQ+ athletes, perhaps discouraged by the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in other major league sports such as the NFL and NBA, have found comfort in the USWNT’s celebration of its gay athletes, including married teammates Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger.

Yet, in months marked by Black Lives Matter protests following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of the police, the USWNT has appeared uncharacteristically slow to the social justice movement.

While individual players have utilized their own platforms in support of Black lives, including former Golden Bear Alex Morgan, who recently participated in the #ShareTheMic campaign with Muslim Olympian Ibtihaj Muhammad in order to magnify Black voices and impel positive social change, the USWNT as a whole could be making greater strides — especially considering its weight in the fight for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights.

The official USWNT Instagram account, with 2 million followers, received a number of condemning comments on its “One Nation. One Team. United Against Racism” and Blackout Tuesday posts June 1 and June 2, respectively. Many asked where links to petitions and fundraisers were, noting the posts were performative at best. Another commented, “Remember that time you almost fired Pinoe for protesting that very same thing you are now speaking out against?” Still more asked if its posts later that week, including birthday shoutouts and one for “#NationalBestFriendDay,” were necessary during times of such injustice.

Retired USWNT player and current sports analyst Julie Foudy recently hosted former teammates and Black women Danielle Slaton and Saskia Webber on her podcast, “Laughter Permitted,” to speak about the USWNT’s acknowledgement, or lack thereof, with race. Describing it as a conversation “20 years overdue,” Foudy admitted that she is embarrassed to have led plenty of conversations discussing women’s rights and equal pay as team captain, but never racism. While Webber shared that she didn’t have to necessarily deal with racial injustices once she was part of the USWNT system given “all anyone cared about was that I could play,” she noted that the same certainly does not hold true for other Black women. Slaton added that this absence of conversation is not unique to the USWNT, but exists in all of the United States.

Although U.S. Soccer has repealed its anthem policy requiring players to stand (put in place after Rapinoe’s kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick), Juneteenth was recognized on the USWNT’s social platforms and further conversations about race relations in the United States have since ensued, this does not change the fact that a multitude of Black players have been and continue to be subjected to acts of outward or systemic racism.

Security guards threatened to call the police if Black USWNT member Jessica McDonald’s son tried to come greet his mom on the field. Crystal Dunn worried about what the repercussions would have been had she, a Black woman, taken a knee with Rapinoe years ago. Moreover, the National Women’s Soccer League plans to resume play within the next month while the number of COVID-19 cases continues to surge throughout the country, disproportionately affecting the Black population.

To conclude a powerful opening in support of the Black Lives Matter movement at the ESPY Awards on Sunday, Rapinoe, now sporting sleek dark brown hair and one of the event’s hosts,  reminded us that “every athlete at every level has the power to show what it looks like to fight for what is right” — and the USWNT is no exception. It must better bring its captain’s words to fruition in support of Black lives. It must channel the same fervor and energy it has committed to LGBTQ+ awareness and women’s rights to racial equity. It, of all teams, is a proven champion of activism. Now is not the time to let up.

Allie Coyne writes for Bear Bytes. Contact her at [email protected].