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How Megan Rapinoe, and other LGBT sports stars, helped set stage for current moment in athlete activism

Rapinoe and players on the Minnesota Lynx weren’t championed by their leagues when they took social stands four years ago.

Netherlands v United States
Megan Rapinoe starting kneeling for the national anthem in 2016 to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

One month before Colin Kaepernick took his first knee, out WNBA stars Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus stepped onto the court donning “Black Lives Matter” shirts, alongside their Minnesota Lynx teammates. Then players for the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury followed suit, facing fines from the WNBA.

While scores of NFL players kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice throughout the 2017 season, few other athletes joined Kaepernick when he first started protesting the previous year, except Megan Rapinoe. She knelt during the anthem to show solidarity with Kaepernick, and all Americans facing discrimination.

“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she said at the time.

We’ve reached a historic turning point this week in athlete activism, with NBA players going on strike Wednesday over the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot in the back seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisc. Sunday night. WNBA players quickly followed suit, and soon, every playoff game on the NBA and WNBA calendars were postponed. MLB and MLS teams went on strike as well, along with Naomi Osaka, one of the best tennis female players in the world.

Outsports managing editor Dawn Ennis wrote eloquently about the intersectionality between movements for racial justice and LGBTQ rights, highlighting Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers’ leadership in both arenas. Following a summer of nationwide racial unrest, every professional sports league publicly supports racial justice initiatives, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even saying he wishes he had listened to Kaepernick earlier (Kaepernick is still absent from an NFL roster).

While there continue to be worthwhile debates about the corporate co-optimization of racial justice movements and slogans, it’s worth noting how much the landscape has changed in recent years. Even the WNBA, commonly believed to be the most progressive pro sports league, was fining players for wearing racial justice slogans on their warmup shirts just a few years ago.

Incensed over the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two Black men who were killed by police, the Lynx decided to make a strong pre-game statement. On July 9, 2016, they wore shirts honoring the two men. “Racism and unjust, phobic fear of black males and disregard of black females is very real,” Brunson said at the time, via The Washington Post. “When we look at the facts, it’s hard to deny that there’s a real problem in our society. I am scared for my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, my future son or daughter.”

The shirts sparked uproar and a movement. In the following weeks, players on the Liberty, Fever and Mercury all wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts, and players on the Seattle Storm also publicized their support. Meanwhile, four Minneapolis police officers hired to provide security for Minnesota’s game that night walked off the job in protest. The WNBA also fined the players, before reversing course.

While player movements were beginning across the WNBA, Kaepernick was largely kneeling alone, until Rapinoe decided to join him. The soccer star knelt during the playing of the national anthem on Sept. 4, 2016, before her Seattle Storm took the field to take on the Chicago Red Stars. She was the first white athlete to support Kaepernick with the gesture.

It was a risky move. Just two years ago, a majority of voters said it was inappropriate to kneel during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In response to Rapinoe’s protest, U.S. Soccer instituted a policy requiring players stand for the anthem. The organization repealed the policy this summer, issuing an apology to Rapinoe in the process.

In June, Rapinoe and Bird hosted a special edition of the ESPY Awards with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, and dedicated the evening to promoting sports as a vehicle for social change. Rapinoe called the current situation in the country a “breaking point.”

As we enter this new era of athlete activism, it’s fair to expect LGBTQ sports figures to keep leading the way. Their mere presence is an act of defiance, given the longstanding anti-LGBTQ barriers in sports.

They continue to be broken down, and with that, athletes’ voices keep getting amplified to new heights.