The National Women’s Soccer League has announced it will revise its pre-game ceremonies during the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup to allow players to remain in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem.
The move comes after the first weekend of the quarantined summer tournament in Utah, in which all starting players from the North Carolina Courage v Portland Thorns game took a knee prior to the competition opener to bring attention to the police brutality and racial injustice in the United States.
However, not every starting player took a knee during the later opening-day game between the Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit, which led to some criticism on social-media platforms for the players who decided to stand during the anthem. These players stood as the visibly emotional Red Stars defender Casey Short had to be consoled by teammate Julie Ertz.
The incident – which overshadowed the game – led to a statement from the NWSL Players Association, which read: “Whether a player chooses to kneel or stand during the national anthem is a personal decision and is not indicative of whether they support BLM [the Black Lives Matter movement] or their teammates.”
Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler also said on Twitter: “The players and staff are unified in their support for BLM and each other. That is 100 per cent full stop unambiguous. Trying to read an emotional TV moment and assuming you know what is in their hearts is not fair or correct.”
Whisler added: “There are many players on most teams who believe you can support BLM and still put your hand on your heart and face the flag during the anthem. That as you know is their right to do. It doesn’t negate how they feel or what they do for BLM. Remember how making it a mandatory thing to stand during the anthem was wrong? Of course it was. It’s just as wrong to make kneeling a litmus test for whether you care about BLM. Some people come to different conclusions about the anthem and I support their right to do so…I’m just sick tonight seeing players dragged and judged for this.”
The national anthem will be played ahead of the remaining games of the NWSL Challenge Cup and players will have the option of being on the field or in their locker room. This decision was made following conversations with players from around the league, as well as club officials and other stakeholders.
NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement: “We’re going to continue to play the national anthem, but with even more flexibility, and support each player’s right to express their individual views, or not. 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.
“The NWSL is a league that was built on diversity and courage and those principles will continue to drive us forward,” Baird added.
It is a similar policy to one adopted by the National Football League in 2018, in which players were given an option of remaining in the locker room until the anthem has finished. As part of that policy, however, players were required to stand and “show respect” if they were on the field for the national anthem.
The NFL policy, which was not enforced in recent seasons, has since been amended in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this month publicly released a video which encouraged players to protest peacefully and acknowledged prior league missteps in this area.
More generally, there is increased enthusiasm for the US national anthem to now be banned at all team-based sporting events due to a fear that the act of standing or not could negatively affect performance and create a hostile work environment between teammates.