U.S. Women's National Team midfielder Megan Rapinoe made waves in news cycles across the country Thursday night when she did indeed protest the current rash of racial injustices and brutality occurring against minorities by kneeling during a rendition of the national anthem before an international friendly against Thailand.
Notably, Air Force Master Sgt. Alyson Jones sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" in uniform approximately 15 yards from where Rapinoe, clad in an officially licensed warmup jacket featuring the USA crest, was kneeling in front of the USWNT bench. According to investigative research by Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl, this is reportedly the first time in international soccer history a player wearing his or her country's colors has protested that country's anthem.
Rapinoe respectfully stood with both hands clasped behind her for the Thai anthem that preceded Jones' performance, but immediately dropped her right knee to the MAPFRE Stadium surface when Jones began to sing.
"Deciding factor in me choosing to kneel? I never felt like it was wrong in the first place," Rapinoe said after the 9-0 result.
Rapinoe said that she believes protesting, particularly in a USA uniform, is one way to use her unique station as a nationally relevant athlete to enact the furthering of a conversation about needed social change.
"I think it's a bigger thing, a more important thing for me, I think, to do while wearing the crest and while wearing the flag … I feel very passionate about my stance and about the need for this conversation to happen and there's no more important place to do that than while actually representing your country," Rapinoe said Thursday.
For context, Rapinoe has been transparent in her commentary about the symbolic gesture since first confirming that her kneeling at an NWSL match was a show of solidarity toward NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has himself been protesting the anthem before San Francisco 49ers contests dating back to mid-August.
After uncertainty had ramped up about whether Rapinoe would refuse to stand and hold hand over heart during the anthem in light of the celebration of teammate Heather O'Reilly's career being the focus Thursday, Rapinoe showed with her actions that she was not wavering in her stance.
Furthermore, Rapinoe had discussed her concerns about how a personal jaunt into a political spotlight affects those around her and, earlier in the week, she acknowledged that her eventual course of action Thursday could perhaps threaten to upstage teammate Heather O'Reilly on the night of her retirement from the USWNT.
Thursday evening's woman of honor offered guarded support for her colleague after the match.
"I saw that Megan was kneeling and no, I don't think it impacted, you know, the game at all. A lot of people love this country and show it in different ways and, you know, that's how Megan wanted to show it," O'Reilly said. "She wants to see change and that's how she feels in her heart that she is demonstrating it.
"But, yeah, I think the focus remained on the game and putting together a good performance."
Head coach Jill Ellis said she had made it clear to Rapinoe that her expectation of national team players is that they stand for the anthem, but she was also intent on having a dialogue with her midfielder.
"I had a conversation with Megan. It was important for me to express how I felt and important for me to listen as well. Yeah, I mean, I think I was very clear in what I expected and needed," Ellis said in a postgame press conference after the friendly. "I think now it's, yeah, continuing conversation and thoughts on my part and probably with the (U.S. Soccer) Federation."
If that last comment seems to have an ominous ring to it, that may very well be an accurate interpretation since U.S. Soccer issued a statement on Rapinoe's actions Thursday night that clearly asserted staunch disapproval:
"Representing your country is a privilege and honor for any player or coach that is associated with U.S. Soccer’s National Teams," the Federation's press release said. "As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played."
As Rapinoe's choice and behavior in the national uniform is unprecedented, it remains to be seen how harshly U.S. Soccer could come down on her with punitive action.
Ellis, for one, said she was not going to prevent Rapinoe from playing in the friendly, regardless of what did or did not happen Thursday.
"I didn't consider not playing her. You know, I think Megan was, she had a lot of different thoughts going through her head and I think where I got to was, until that moment presents itself, I'm not going to predetermine anything," Ellis said.
Rapinoe, before conclusions are unfairly made about her prioritization of politics over respecting a teammate's accomplishments, prefaced all statements made to the media about her protest with admiration for O'Reilly.
"First off, I just want to say congratulations to Heather. Obviously, this is a very special night in our world and, you now, she's one of the absolute best, for me, she's one of the best people that I'll ever know so I just wanted to say that for her. It was a wonderful night for her, getting goals and assists and shedding a few tears. Just, congratulations to her," Rapinoe said.
Rapinoe echoed her coach's willingness to have a two-way dialogue by responding to a Massive Report question about what she would say in a hypothetical conversation with the fan who loudly shouted "STAND UP, PINOE" right as she took a knee.
"I would ask them for compassion for the issues that I'm talking about and for the types of oppression and the types of racism, systematic and otherwise, that people are feeling and try to understand where they're coming from but aslo have them understand where I'm coming from … and why I would ever choose to do something this drastic," Rapinoe said.
The USWNT next takes on the Netherlands at Atlanta's Georgia Dome in another international friendly, where scrutiny is sure to followed Rapinoe and her decision to make powerful statements in an American athletic uniform.