Typically, the players warm up for an extended period, return to the locker room for final instructions, then take the field for introductions and the anthem. In this case, moments after the Spirit and Seattle Reign players finished warm-ups and retreated indoors, fans were asked to stand and observe the anthem.
Rapinoe first knelt for the anthem Sunday during the Reign’s game at Chicago against the Red Stars, saying she did it as a nod to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick created a national stir late last month when he refused to stand for the anthem during a preseason game.
Players on both teams arrived at the SoccerPlex unaware of plans for the early playing of the anthem. Spirit Coach Jim Gabarra told his players in the locker room just before the anthem started. Rapinoe, who had entered as a substitute in the previous two matches, was not in Seattle’s starting lineup and came on in the second half.
In a match twice delayed by lightning, the first-place Spirit (12-3-3) won, 2-1, to clinch home-field advantage in the league semifinals, Sept. 30 or Oct. 1. Crystal Dunn, Rapinoe’s U.S. Olympic teammate, scored a sensational goal from 22 yards just before halftime and Cheyna Williams put away a rebound in the 61st minute. Kim Little converted a penalty kick in the 71st for the Reign (6-6-6).
The Spirit said it did not want Rapinoe to detract from the final regular season home game, which, combined with other results in the league, could’ve clinched first place for Washington with two matches remaining.
“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 Spirit said in a statement. “While we respect every individual’s right to express themselves, and believe Ms. Rapinoe to be an amazing individual with a huge heart; we respectfully disagree with her method of hijacking our organization’s event to draw attention to what is ultimately a personal — albeit worthy — cause.”
Kaepernick’s stance has continued to generate headlines. The NFL.com’s Steve Wyche was the first to notice Kaepernick sitting during the anthem before the 49ers Aug. 27 game against Green Bay. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said afterward. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick has continued to sit for the anthem since, and Rapinoe is part of a handful of athletes to follow his lead. The Spirit, however, was able to sidestep any controversy with its move Wednesday night.
“As a veteran owned team, the national anthem holds an exceptionally special meaning for this organization,” the team’s statement continued. “Our owner Bill Lynch has lost personal friends during overseas conflicts and has other close friends who have also lost loved ones. Playing the national anthem prior to sports events became standard during World War II and was a way to express the team’s and fan’s patriotism and show support for the U.S. Military. The tradition of honoring our military and our patriotism before our games is very important to us. We strongly feel that there are better ways to begin a conversation about a cause than tarnishing a tradition that is so important to so many.”
“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. Professional athletes have incredible numbers of followers, to which we believe they have the ability to articulate a conversation with objectives and plans and begin a serious conversation directly, or through traditional media appearances, without insulting our military and our fans.
“We do regret that this decision has denied the players who had no intention of taking a knee their own opportunity to honor our great country from the field. This is an issue we are communicating to and with them about personally.”
NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush attended Wednesday’s match and, after the anthem played, said he was unaware of the Spirit’s plans.
“I would have preferred to have had an honest dialogue of what we wanted to do, what their goals were, and then work through it,” he said. “I don’t suggest I have all the answers, but it’s better to talk about it. I’m disappointed.”
On the broader topic, he said: “It’s an emotional issue. I’m trying to be aware of that and respectful of different points of view. It’s a challenging issue and a challenging time. We’ve got some issues we need to work through as a country. … The issue brought forth by Colin and then Megan is a real issue. We need to have serious conversations about it. I don’t know whether it belongs on the playing surface. It’s bigger than us.”
In recent days, Lynch shared his feelings about the anthem controversy with his players, saying he would be disappointed if any of them followed Rapinoe’s lead. He did not threaten to fine or suspend anyone who did kneel.
The Spirit and Reign will meet again Sunday in Seattle.
In a statement released earlier Wednesday, Reign management said: “We will continue to encourage all Reign players to participate in the pre-match ceremony, which honors those who have served and made sacrifices on our behalf. We will also continue to allow players to participate in the pre-match ceremony in a manner consistent with their personal beliefs, reflecting our respect for the rights earned and defended by those fighting for our nation.”