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Washington Spirit players on racism, #BlackLivesMatter, and progress: Kaiya McCullough on the power of kneeling

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Kaiya McCullough is, as the kids say, a real one

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2020 NWSL Draft Photo by Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

In the wake of the brutal slaying of George Floyd, protests, which began in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, have sprung up across continents. Nearly every large city in America has hosted demonstrations, and some smaller town uprisings have made news too, but there have also been mass gatherings spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement in Australia, Ghana, South Africa, England, France, Belgium and more. The key difference in these uprisings is that people, specifically white people, are listening.

This has led to many athletes — America’s most visible entertainers — using their platforms to discuss racism and push for genuine, long overdue changes. In this mini-series we’ll look at what some Spirit players are doing and saying during this potentially transformative moment of American history.


Rookie defender Kaiya McCullough, who began kneeling for the anthem in response to police brutality and in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, was interviewed about the US Soccer Federation’s sudden reversal of, and apology for, its policy banning protests during the national anthem.

“I think it was a very, for lack of a better word, a horrible rule to begin with. I think it was directly contrary to what Kaepernick and Rapinoe were trying to accomplish with their protests, and I think silencing that had some very seriously questionable motives. I’m definitely glad that they repealed that rule because being an athlete, you have a responsibility to speak up about things because of the platform you’re given. For them to take that away from athletes I think, really, was just unacceptable.” –Kaiya McCullough; source: Telegraph Sport

McCullough echoed the sentiment of being motivated by America’s broken promises of liberty and justice, and the conflict of glorifying the country for rights unequally applied to people because of their Black skin.

“I was like, I can’t pledge my allegiance to a country that doesn’t actually stand for liberty and justice for all when it is disproportionately affecting black people and people of [color].”

She admits that the reaction was difficult to cope with, and that some fellow students dusted off the useless and tired “Go back to Africa” barb. However, having been vocal about inequality through her social media channels, she was motivated to do more publicly after seeing the heated aftermath of Kaepernick’s protest.

McCullough, who is biracial, has a constant reminder of how the brutal institution of chattel slavery has impacted her life — her last name.

“I always knew that I was a descendant of slaves.”

“There’s not really much of an explanation for having a Scottish last name as a black person in America besides that being the plantation owners’ names. Black people in that time were literally stripped of their identities and forced to take new ones. That is just part of the generational pain that a lot of black people feel.”

Coping with generational pain and the burden to lessen it for future generations are weighty burdens that many Black people feel on a frequent basis. Racism, annoyingly, cannot be dismantled through the determination of Black people, and silence is a death warrant. As such, the work of outlining fissures in society scythed by racism falls to millions of Black Americans, no matter our status or occupation. It’s both pain response and hopeful plea.

“It just gave more of a push to me to really fight for this, because I don’t want to sit here when my kids and their kids and their kids after them are still having to deal with the same issues. I can’t sit here and know that I didn’t do anything in my power to absolutely stop it at its core.” –Kaiya McCullough; source: Telegraph Sport

In this same vein, McCullough has determined that she will continue to kneel for the anthem ahead of Washington Spirit matches. Spirit majority owner Steve Baldwin says she has the club’s support, telling Washington City Paper, “I find her to be extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and I made a commitment to her that I would support her in her pursuit of her interests and what she wants to do.”