Despite pulling off more than a few fantastic plays on the field, the U.S. women's national soccer team couldn't escape criticism when they took on Thailand in the FIFA Women's World Cup last Tuesday. Along with condemnation about their celebratory enthusiasm were questions about why one co-captain didn't sing along to the national anthem. But why Megan Rapinoe protests the national anthem is part of a movement the soccer star joined more than two years ago.
Cameras caught Rapinoe standing, hands at her side, in line with her teammates ahead of Tuesday's game as the U.S. national anthem in Stade Auguste-Delaune II stadium in Reims, France. But while the rest of the U.S. women's national soccer team appeared to be singing, or at least mouthing along to, "The Star-Spangled Banner," Rapinoe was not. In fact, she hasn't sung the national anthem or put her hand to her heart while it plays since 2016, when then-NFL quarter Colin Kaepernick began to kneel in protest during the anthem.
"I'll probably never put my hand over my heart," Rapinoe told Yahoo! Sports during a May interview. "I'll probably never sing the national anthem again."
But Rapinoe's anthem protest hasn't always looked the way it does now. At first, inspired by Kaepernick, she too took a knee when "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played ahead of games. In September 2016, she told the Associated Press she'd knelt ahead of the Seattle Reign's game against the Chicago Red Stars in "a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he's standing for." According to Yahoo! Sports, she was both the first white athlete and first female athlete to join Kaepernick in kneeling for the anthem.
"Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties," the soccer player went on to say, per the Associated Press. "It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it." At the time, Rapinoe stressed that it was important for white people to support people of color who protest issues of racial inequality while not attempt to be "the leading voice."
Within days of that game, U.S. Soccer issued a statement via ESPN2 in which the organization said it had "an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the National Anthem is played" as it is "an opportunity for our Men's and Women's National Team players and coaches to reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country."
Despite the statement, Rapinoe continued to kneel. What's more, she expanded on her motivation for protesting in an October 2016 op-ed for The Players' Tribune. "I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street," she wrote. "But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache." She said she'd chosen to kneel in protest during the anthem because she couldn't stand for "the kind of oppression this country is allowing against its own people."
In February 2017, however, the governing board behind U.S. Soccer passed a new bylaw requiring all players and coaches to stand "respectfully" during the national anthem. "All persons representing a Federation national team shall stand respectfully during the playing of national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented," ESPN reported the new policy read.
Per the new bylaw, Rapinoe now stands during the anthem — exactly as she did ahead of games on Tuesday and Saturday — with her hands at her sides, her mouth unmoving. In comments to Yahoo! Sports, she characterized the bylaw as U.S. Soccer's attempt to simply "stop me from doing what I'm doing" instead of speaking to her and other kneeling players to figure out a compromise that would have worked for everyone.
And while the U.S. women's national soccer team is set to continue to draw significant attention at the FIFA Women's World Cup, Rapinoe appears to have no plans to return to singing the national anthem anytime soon. "It would take a lot," she told Yahoo! Sports. "It would take criminal justice reform. It would take the huge inequality gap that we have to be much better. It would take a lot of progress in LGBTQ rights."