NWSL Challenge Cup Players Kneel in Mass During National Anthem

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Members of the Portland Thorns, North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit kneeled during the playing of the national anthem before their respective games on Saturday during the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Both starting lineups for the Thorns and Courage, as well as the bench players on the sidelines, kneeled as the anthem was being performed by a saxophone player live in the stadium. Players also sported Black Lives Matter shirts ahead of the game.

Later on Saturday, most Red Stars and Spirit players also knelt for the anthem. 

The teams' choice to kneel comes after peaceful protests have regained national attention following the killing of George Floyd in late May. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

Earlier this month, U.S. Soccer's Board of Directors voted to repeal a policy that required players to stand during the national anthem. The policy was originally put in place after Megan Rapinoe knelt during the national anthem before a 2016 NWSL game. Rapinoe knelt to support then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in his protest efforts, saying she sympathized with his feelings toward the anthem, and the responses he received as a result of kneeling.

On Saturday, Rapinoe praised the players on Twitter for kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement.

"You love to see it. You love to see these women using their voice, demanding better for America, and for black people and people of color," Rapinoe said.

In 2016, NWSL and MLS were both supportive of athletes exercising their right to peacefully protest. Neither of those stances has changed, officials in both leagues have said.

An NWSL official told Sports Illustrated on June 11 that it continues to support its players and has "no policy against the players demonstrating in any way during the anthem," while also adding that "with everything going on, we can all expect that the players will recognize their support [of social justice causes] in some way."

The NWSL becomes the first American pro sports league with contact to return to action after the coronavirus shutdown with play kicking off this weekend in Utah. The league's active eight clubs are participating after the entire Orlando Pride squad withdrew on Monday after multiple players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus.

A number of U.S. women's national team players, including 2019 World Cup winners Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Mal Pugh, Christen Press and Tobin Heath, announced they won't be suiting up due to injury or personal reasons.