Seeing athletes kneel to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has become nearly as ritualistic as playing the national anthem. It now stands out when a player doesn’t kneel, a considerable change from just a few years ago, when players like Colin Kaepernick of the NFL generated controversy through their on-field protests.
That’s perhaps what’s most striking about the phenomenon – it’s no longer a protest, but customary. Prior to kick-off in the bronze medal match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) knelt, as they have throughout the tournament. So did the team’s coaching staff and even two referees. Only one of the American starters on the field did not: Carli Lloyd.
It’s worth noting the USWNT’s opponents – Australia – chose not to kneel, either. With their arms linked, the Aussie players and staff stood during the entire display. But since the USWNT has been prominent among athlete protests supporting BLM, it was striking to see a lone American stand while her entire team did the opposite.
Lloyd, of course, isn’t just any player. Her country and team can thank her for the tremendous success they’ve enjoyed the last decade. In the 2012 Olympics women’s soccer final, Lloyd scored both U.S. goals to beat Japan and earn the USWNT’s fourth gold medal. In the 2015 Women’s World Cup final, Lloyd scored a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the match, en route to her team’s third world title (also against Japan).
It’s far from an exaggeration to say two of the USWNT’s greatest victories of the last 10 years were delivered almost single-handedly by Lloyd. Emerging victorious against Australia in the 2020 bronze medal match, Lloyd added two more international goals to her legend.
It isn’t clear what motivated her decision to stand alone. Lloyd has always been known more for her on-field performances and hasn’t courted controversy and drama. This contrasts with fellow USWNT heavyweight Megan Rapinoe, who has certainly used her profile and stature to wage culture battles.
That said, Lloyd did once drop a hint about her opinions. In a 2016 interview with Sports Illustrated, Lloyd referred to Rapinoe’s actions as a “distraction,” while noting mutual respect between the two. In another interview, Lloyd said, “If it were up to me, I’d protest in a different fashion.”
Lloyd has consistently appeared to put country — and soccer — over politics. While many of her teammates have knelt or abstained from singing the national anthem, Lloyd nearly always stood for and sang the national anthem.
Moreover, the 2020 bronze medal match wasn’t the first time Lloyd drew attention for choosing to honor her country. In a January 2021 friendly against Colombia, Lloyd and three other starters notably stood.
Post-game, she was asked by a reporter why. (Again, it’s worth noting how norms have changed, with the decision to not kneel generating the controversy.) Lloyd side-stepped the question in her response, focusing on the team’s camaraderie instead.
It raises an interesting question – where do most of America’s athletes stand on the matter? The entire U.S. Olympic team entered the most hallowed of athletic competitions under a cloud of suspicion, to put it mildly. The blatant political activism and anti-American rhetoric of certain athletes have made it difficult for much of the nation to wholeheartedly support their athletes. This is unfortunate on both ends.
For the spectating American, it’s disheartening to see participants exploit the privilege of representing their country to tarnish its reputation. For athletes, many of whom likely don’t share the sentiments of their activist compatriots, there’s an unjust guilt-by-association. We saw an example of this in the backlash against gymnast Simone Biles when she chose not to participate in the individual all-around final.
The anger directed at Biles came off as though some Americans were itching for a reason to lash out at their emissaries. Trust in America’s institutions is low and declining. All sides feel their sentiments are justified, but the toxicity is undeniable.
The dampened mood overshadowed the athletes who not only performed admirably in their competitions but displayed incredible patriotism in the process. Tamyra Mensah-Stock, who won gold in wrestling, was probably the most prominent example, expressing her love for God and country in a viral and emotional interview.
Athletes like Mensah-Stock deserve honor, for they honor America with word and deed. The tense and unpleasant atmosphere shouldn’t detract from their accomplishments, but it inevitably does. Hopefully this era will remind us why politics and sports are a noxious mix.
The 2020 Olympics were likely the final major tournament appearance for 39-year-old Lloyd. She walked off the pitch with two more goals and a bronze medal, but also with the knowledge that, given the opportunity to air grievances against her country to the world, she chose to quietly defend its honor instead.
Standing for her nation, even if it means doing so alone – what could be more American than that?
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