During the pregame ceremony ahead of OL Reign’s NWSL Challenge Cup opener, all 28 players on the Reign roster — along with the club’s coaching staff — took a knee during the national anthem to show their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even before stepping on the field today, the club shared a united message addressing systemic racism and privilege. Their video asked OL Reign players — and all those watching — to reflect on the impact that privilege has both in and out of the game of soccer. I can’t do the video justice, so just watch it below.
Reign players in the video — and during today’s pregame ceremony — were wearing an OL Reign-branded Black Lives Matter shirt, with the logo of the sustainable clothing line created by Reign player Jasmyne Spencer, Jas it Up, on the right sleeve and the name of Manuel Ellis on the left sleeve. Ellis died on March 3 after being arrested and placed in a chokehold by officers in Tacoma.
Nearly every player and staff member for Sky Blue FC, OL Reign’s opponent, also chose to kneel for the anthem. The club also issued the below statement a few hours before the game — noting that every Sky Blue player will donate to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice each time the team scores a goal.
Sky Blue players shared their hope that their effort would “help continue the fight for a better America — an America where everyone is proud to stand for the anthem of a country we truly believe represents us all.”
As all teams have done before kickoff during the Challenge Cup, Reign and Sky Blue players knelt in silence for 46 seconds immediately before kickoff — symbolizing the 8 minutes and 46 seconds a police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck before Floyd died.
When the NWSL Challenge Cup kicked off this weekend, one of the largest discussion points emerging from the opening matches wasn’t related to performance on the field. It was focused on players’ actions in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — where most chose to kneel during the playing of the national anthem while a select few stood.
And plenty of people saw the moment unfold. Nearly 600,000 people watched the opening match of the Challenge Cup on CBS — the largest total ever for an NWSL match by far.
Just sent #NWSLChallengeCup opening game between @ThornsFC and @TheNCCourage ratings info from a source.— Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan) June 30, 2020
572K total viewers on CBS, 178K for the 18-49 age group.
(2019 Championship drew 166K via ESPN, for comparison.)
While fewer tuned in for the evening match between Chicago and Washington, both matches sparked a lot of national discourse over the weekend — about those who chose to stand and the need for the anthem in the first place. The NWSL on Monday shared an update on their national anthem policy, announcing they will continue to play the anthem, but will give players the option of being on the field or in the locker room as it happens.
“The NWSL stands behind every player, official and staff member. Kneel on the field. Stand with your hand over your heart. Honor your feelings in the privacy of the locker room or at midfield,” NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement. “The NWSL is a league that was built on diversity and courage and those principles will continue to drive us forward.”
This decision was reminiscent of 2017, when some Reign players opted to stay in the locker room for the anthem in the team’s final regular season home game of the year, following disparaging comments from the White House about similar protests in the NFL and a USSF rule mandating that players stand for the anthem during national team games.
As Meg Linehan shared in The Athletic today, the decision to keep playing the anthem was made after consultation with a number of sources, including the NWSL and USWNT Players Associations. After these discussions, the league chose to keep the anthem in place so that, as Baird indicated, players could continue to have a platform for conversation.
From Meg’s Athletic story: “One player explained how their side of this process so far has worked to The Athletic: the team’s elected PA reps reached out to their teammates for feedback about the anthem, and found that the players wanted to keep it before the games, feeling that to skip the anthem would essentially give away their right to kneel. Plus, another portion of the team viewed kneeling not as a protest, but as a way to directly show their support for their Black teammates.”
Regardless of the new league policy, OL Reign players boldly reminded us today that they’re playing for something much bigger than soccer. It’s up to all of us to listen.