Ahead of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, when the NWSL was preparing to be the first American league to return to play via a tightly sequestered bubble environment in Utah, there were growing pleas for the league to reconsider the pre-game playing of the national anthem. The motivation was to protect the Black players in the league from being forced to participate in a nationalistic ritual with the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd weighing heavily on the hearts and consciousnesses of most Black people within America’s borders.
At the time the NWSL acknowledged this argument, but said they’d spoken with players and noted that some wanted the opportunity to protest during the anthem. It was also agreed that players who didn’t want to participate could stay in the locker room and no punishment would be levied, unlike in other leagues. While speaking to Meg Linehan of The Athletic, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird had this to say about the decision to continue playing the anthem, and increase “flexibility” for players (which translates to removing punishments for player protest or non-participation).
“Our players, the majority of them, want to be part of a significant conversation that is going on in America,” she said. “It’s not an easy conversation. Their voices are — I think — being heard. We want to give them that platform to do that.”
As for why the anthem is actually played before NWSL matches (or any domestic sports event), Baird said she has gotten that question before, but she’s still thinking on it.
“It’s impossible to separate that question from what the players want to do. What the players want to do, for me, is paramount right now,” she said. “I feel like we have been working together to collaborate on our choice. I want to give them a flexible way to express themselves. This tournament has been driven by principles from the very beginning and not popularity and not the avoidance of controversy, it’s been driven by principles.” -Lisa Baird, NWSL Commissioner; source: The Athletic
As 2020 wound down and 2021 slowly shifted toward visages of normalcy, the USWNT held a handful of friendlies. Before each, the anthem was played and photos of Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Carli Lloyd, Emily Sonnett, Kelley O’Hara and Jane Campbell continued to be called out on social media for never opting to do the bare minimum to display support for their Black teammates, Black supporters, and Black people in America — whether solely as a show of team unity, or lament for Black people murdered by police.
Anthem time again. Sonnett and Campbell join Ertz standing, the rest of the starters kneel. Horan and Lloyd still standing on the bench. pic.twitter.com/2pgfYYRIAk— Julia Poe (@byjuliapoe) January 23, 2021
Then, as the NWSL kicked off its season, including a pre-season and second Challenge Cup tournament, a decision was made that has persisted during the regular season: No matter the broadcast — Paramount+, CBS Sports Network, Twitch or CBS proper — the national anthem was no longer a televised part of the pregame buildup.
Black and Red United reached out to the NWSL for comment, and through a spokesperson, the league had the following statement:
Beginning with the Fall Series last year, our broadcasts have not included the national anthem. While the anthem has played before each game since, players have the option of remaining in the dressing rooms during the anthem, kneeling on the pitch, standing at attention, or otherwise celebrating, protesting or making their voice heard in a manner they deem appropriate. We’ve also recently initiated a review, in partnership with the NWSLPA, to discuss possible innovations or changes to our pre-match ceremonies. Those discussions are ongoing.
For now, the in-stadium experience of the pregame ritual has remained unchanged, but unless a fan or journalist inside snaps and posts a photo, audiences not in attendance wouldn’t have a clue. On television, panning shots of players in mixed reverence — some showing unity with Black teammates and the Black Lives Matter movement, others opting against and prioritizing ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ instead — have been replaced by commercials. Even the tightly cropped camera shots and long slow zoom-ins of an American flag waving on a jumbotron limit the parsing of for whom kneeling or standing aren’t enough. We know from the sporadic snapshots that tumble down Twitter timelines that many players, and indeed whole teams, have continued to protest. These players and some clubs feel it important to continue to do so, except now their platform has been shrunken exponentially, and any protest or activism is hidden on television or streaming apps behind appeals to buy Subway sandwiches.
If a year ago the league felt it was important enough to merit drafting and approving a new anthem policy to feature player protest, what changed? This elicits a bevy of additional questions, many of which deserve answers, or at the very least transparency — Who was involved? What was the conversation? When did it happen? Is the choice permanent? Who pushed for it? Who was against? Why? — but two two stick out as necessary.
The first: Who is the anthem being played for now? If it was agreed to continue playing it a year ago so that players can protest, and those protests are no longer making it to air, who or what is being prioritized instead, and why? Whether the break is to offer additional space for advertisers, or something more troubling such as protecting standing players from social media scrutiny, it’s important that the NWSL be upfront about where it now stands on the importance of featuring player protest and activism.
The second: Why is the anthem still being played? If maintaining a platform for player activism was last season’s tipping point in favor of continuing to play the anthem ahead of every domestic competition, the decision to remove 99% of the audience for that activism renders that platform moot. In that case, shouldn’t the NWSL be revisiting the 2020 question of whether to play the anthem at all? If it’s about maintaining a pregame ritual, plenty of domestic leagues and even international competitions — e.g. the iconic CHAAAAAAMPIONNNNNNS — have their own anthems, and the NWSL could do the same if the break is required for advertisers.
Since the NWSL took steps to restructure its televised pregame format, it’s worth asking — and for the NWSL, it’s surely worth sharing — the motivation that led to this decision, particularly since the last bit of shared framework prioritized activism.
It’s a stark contrast that lends itself to cynical interpretation, particularly in the absence of any clarity from the league. Suddenly, and silently, deciding to remove the playing of the anthem from broadcasts while continuing the outdated and nationalistic ritual raises fair questions, and also suspicions. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that that the NWSL decided to protect some players from being called out on social media for refusing to display unity with their Black teammates and fans.
As the league continues to grow and gain popularity, it must remember that it has a responsibly to be more transparent, vulnerable, and willing to adapt. If statements posted in white text on a black background indicate the NWSL’s desire to support racial justice, the league must be willing to start with itself.
This NWSL season has been the most anticipated since the league’s inception, and it’s living up to the lofty on-pitch expectations inspired by the USWNT’s 2019 World Cup victory. The players (and some clubs) are doing their part. It’s important that NWSL decision makers don’t shy away from doing theirs.