BOYD, MARYLAND — Punctuated by lightning, rainstorms, and a stunning first goal by Crystal Dunn, Wednesday night’s match-up between the Washington Spirit and Seattle Reign at Maureen Hendricks Field had huge implications for the National Women’s Soccer League playoffs.
But after both teams were unexpectedly and purposefully kept in the locker room while the national anthem was played on the field — and after Spirit owner Bill Lynch released a scathing statement explaining the decision was intended to prevent Reign star Megan Rapinoe from “hijacking our organization’s event” by taking a knee during the national anthem as a way to protest the state of race relations in the country — it’s clear the repercussions of the game are far more wide-reaching.
“It’s fucking unbelievable,” Rapinoe said after the Reign’s 2–1 loss, when asked about Lynch’s move. “I’m saddened by it.”
She was far from the only one who felt that way.
NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush happened to be in attendance on Wednesday night and said he had “no idea” about the Spirit’s decision beforehand.
“No, I don’t support it,” a clearly flustered Plush told ThinkProgress during the second half of the game. “I’m disappointed by it. I didn’t know about it. It’s an emotional topic and I’m trying to be open-minded. It’s all very fresh.”
“I’m disappointed by it. I didn’t know about it. It’s an emotional topic and I’m trying to be open minded. It’s all very fresh.”
It seems everyone was blindsided by the decision. Reign coach Laura Harvey said they didn’t find out the national anthem had already been played until seconds before they walked out onto the field. And, while Spirit media relations restricted players and coaches to only answering questions about the game, forward Dunn did confirm to reporters that she was not aware of the change in schedule beforehand.
“To not be notified prior was disappointing,” Harvey said. “That tells its own story.”
This particular thread of athlete activism began two weeks ago, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem at a preseason NFL game as a way to protest the oppression of black people and people of color in America.
Last Sunday, in an act of solidarity with Kaepernick, Rapinoe took a knee when the national anthem was played before the Reign’s game against the Chicago Red Stars.
— Ben Carrington (@BenHCarrington) September 5, 2016
“We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country,” she said at the time, announcing that she would continue the protest throughout the rest of the NWSL and U.S. Women’s National Team season.
While Rapinoe’s decision was, of course, controversial, both the Reign and the NWSL supported her right to peacefully protest. Lynch and the Spirit organization, apparently, did not.
“We understand this may be seen as an extraordinary step, but believe it was the best option to avoid taking focus away from the game on such an important night for our franchise,” the team’s statement read, stressing also that Lynch was a veteran and had lost friends in combat. “To willingly allow anyone to hijack this tradition that means so much to millions of Americans and so many of our own fans for any cause would effectively be just as disrespectful as doing it ourselves.”
“I think it was incredibly distasteful to say that — four days before one of the worst tragedies in our country — to say that I ‘hijacked’ this event.”
Spirit President Chris Hummer would not elaborate on the timing of the national anthem decision. “I don’t think how or when or who changes the story,” he said in an email to ThinkProgress. “We just think this is not the right way to fight for it when she has so many other avenues on which to communicate to a massive audience that wouldn’t directly offend so many fans.”
However, some found the inflammatory language used in the Spirit’s statement far more offensive than any peaceful protest.
“I think it was incredibly distasteful to say that — four days before one of the worst tragedies in our country — to say that I ‘hijacked this event,’” Rapinoe said. “It’s really disappointing, and disrespectful.”
Numerous fans certainly agreed. The start of the game was incredibly chaotic due to an extended lightning delay, so many thought the decision to play the anthem without the players was merely intended to save time. But once the Spirit’s statement started circulating swiftly through social media, outrage brewed.
The Spirit Squad — a group of dozens of dedicated Spirit fans who sit in the general admission seats decked out in Spirit gear, waving signs, starting chants, and banging drums — was particularly deflated.
“The squadron was not happy,” Lauren Williams, a member of the group for the last two years, said. “There was definitely a consensus of, ‘wow, we’re going to choose to root for an opposing player for a while.’”
Melissa, another squadron member and Spirit season ticket holder for the last four years, was incensed.
“I’m a veteran. Bill Lynch does not speak for me. I’m a season ticket holder. He does not speak for me,” she said, asking to be identified only by her first name. “His ridiculous statement is not what veterans fight for. Veterans go out and fight for everybody’s rights. If you don’t do that, then this isn’t the country he fights for.”
“I’m a veteran. Bill Lynch does not speak for me. I’m a season ticket holder. He does not speak for me.”
Lynch has long been one of the most conservative NWSL owners. The Spirit are the only team in the league that don’t have an LGBTQ Pride night, and they were the only team who didn’t openly celebrate marriage equality after the landmark Supreme Court decision last June. Wednesday night’s decision rekindled Melissa’s frustration and hurt over that issue.
“I am also a lesbian. I personally believe this was a homophobic statement from Bill Lynch,” she said. “He’s the only owner that doesn’t support Pride night, so you can’t tell me that his belief about Pinoe is not connected to homophobia, you just can’t.”
Rapinoe — who said on Sunday that one of the reasons she supports Kaeppernick is because as a gay person, she has often felt conflicted standing for the anthem without feeling like her liberties were protected — didn’t deny the connection.
“I do think that Bill Lynch is homophobic,” she said.
If the intent was truly to keep the focus on an incredibly important game for the Spirit franchise, then it was not successful.
“The last thing we’re speaking about is the game, and it wouldn’t be like that if the anthem had been played, and it wouldn’t have been like that if the stuff hadn’t gone out publicly,” Harvey said. “So that in itself says that maybe the decision… has had its adverse effect.”
“He’s the one who hijacked the game,” Marva Makle, who picked an eventful night for her first ever Spirit game, said. “I think it’s pretty lame that she’s not allowed to protest if that’s what she wants to do.”
(Contrary to the team’s initial statement, Hummer expressed in his email that the Spirit did “understand it will give Ms. Rapinoe an even bigger platform with the attention this draws, and that’s fine” because “equal rights and fairness in our society for all is a worthy cause to fight for.”)
“I don’t know exactly the right things to say, but I want to learn, and I want to engage in that conversation.”
Oh, by the way, the Spirit did end up clinching the first home playoff game in franchise history. Any other night, that would have been the headline. Rapinoe and the Reign, meanwhile, are still fighting to get into the postseason, and will have another chance this weekend in Seattle when they face the Spirit once again.
That game happens to be on September 11. Rapinoe said the team is planning a ceremony with veterans, and she has already reached out to them and will talk with them directly before the game.
“Giving them the utmost respect is paramount for me and for the club,” she said.
But, no matter what, Rapinoe is going to continue to take a knee. And she hopes that sooner rather than later, the real conversation can break through the noise.
She wants to talk about the oppression that communities of color experience. She wants to talk about racism and poverty and intersectionality. She wants to talk about wage discrimination and gender inequality, and how thing are far worse for minority women than they are for white women. She wants to discuss ways to improve the relationship between police and communities of color.
“I don’t know exactly the right things to say, but I want to learn, and I want to engage in that conversation,” she said.
Mostly, she just wants to make sure we keep talking.
“We need to have an open conversation about race relations in this country, and what that means to both sides,” Rapinoe said. “I think that conversation gets so mixed up. It’s like, what are we actually talking about?”