TThe first action I took was so discreet that the only person who saw it was Sue [Bird]. To go back: after the Olympics, when we all returned to Seattle, Sue and I met. It was a group dinner and the atmosphere was totally platonic, especially since Sera, my fiancee, was there. That day we discovered that Sue and I were going to play in Chicago for our respective teams during the same week in September and several weeks later I headed to the airport to meet my team.
At check-in, one of my teammates, who was dating a player from Sue’s WNBA team, turned to me and said, “Oh, I’m going to the basketball game tonight and I have a tic .. . “Before I could finish. he yelled, “I want to go.” I should have known then. Never in a million years would I land from a flight and drive 45 minutes to watch someone else play and yet I found myself desperate to go. That night, I showed up for Sue’s game.
The game was between the Seattle Storm, Sue’s team, and Chicago Sky and when the anthem started playing, I just sat there. It was the day after Colin [Kaepernick] I got down on my knees first and hadn’t told anyone that I wasn’t going to stand up, but I hadn’t told anyone either. It was not planned. It was a knee-jerk reaction: outrage on Colin’s part, a desire to show solidarity, and the conviction that what he had done made total sense.
In 2016, young black men ages 15 to 34 were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police. Of all the unarmed people killed by the police in 2016, 34% were black men (representing 6% of the population). How could a reasonable person believe that Colin and other protesters were wrong?
I thought no one had noticed. Recently, however, Sue told me that she had looked up from the court, seen me sitting, and knew exactly what I was doing. The fact that he realized, understood, and still had the discretion not to bombard me with questions tells you everything you need to know about what happened next.
After the game, Sue and I met. He already knew she was funny and thoughtful. And of course he knew she was beautiful. We did nothing but talk that night; There was no physical overlap with my fiancée in Seattle, but if I’m honest there was an emotional one. Before I said goodbye, I told Sue that I would be on tour with the team for another week and that when I got home I would work things out with Sera. She was calm about that too. “All I ask is that you let me know,” he said.
When I saw Sue again, she was single. I was also splashed with all the news. After kneeling for the first time before the league game in Chicago, I knelt again a few days later in Maryland. Once again, the fury was instantaneous and enormous. The whites were crazy. Wow, they were crazy! Conservative commentators in the media immediately began yelling and yelling that kneeling during the anthem did not respect the military.
(Want to talk about the military? The military die every year because they don’t have access to healthcare and the government doesn’t fund them properly. In 2015, it was revealed that hundreds of thousands of veterans had died prior to their VA applications. [Veterans Association] care was even prosecuted and racial profiling has always pervaded veteran programs. Do you want to talk about the damn army?)
The owner of the Washington Spirit, who changed the pregame time to play the anthem while we were still in the locker room, later accused me of hijacking the game. When I told reporters that I was on my knees to draw attention to white supremacy and police brutality, a lot of white people took it incredibly personally. I found this strange. It was not their fault as individuals that slavery happened, but it was everyone’s responsibility to address it.
I was not expecting anything like this scale of outrage. When I campaigned for LGBTQ rights or pay equity, I was always warmly welcomed. I knew racism was different, just look at what happened to the WNBA players who, after staging their jersey protest in July, had been fined, individually and as a team, by their league. It was only after a public outcry that the fines were suspended.
As Tina Charles, one of the best basketball players in the world, pointed out, wearing breast cancer ribbons to raise awareness was okay; Racism awareness, in a league where 70% of the players were black, was not.
There were far fewer black Americans in soccer than in basketball, and when I joined Colin’s protest I knew that my whiteness and the whiteness of my sport in general probably offered some degree of immunity. I was a woman too – loud, yes, but small, pale, and, in the eyes of many angry white men, relatively harmless. Even something like hair probably came into play; Colin’s hair, an afro, was much larger than mine, and along with the rest of him, it just took up more space.
To his detractors, Colin was the epitome of the racist stereotype of the aggressive black man. For me, I assumed it would be little more than an irritant. In the days after I got down on my knees, I realized that I had misnamed him. There is a particular kind of bewildered outrage that whites reserve for other white people who they feel are “betraying” their race and that week I felt its full force. The criticism kept coming. They told me I was misusing the freedom the United States Army had fought to give me, which, breaking news! This is not how freedom works. The hate mail arrived at my agent’s office. People asked to be fired from the team. My social networks were full of abuse.
One Life by Megan Rapinoe is published by Penguin Press. Copyright © 2020 by Megan Rapinoe. To order a copy click here.
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