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Kaiya McCullough discusses her activism, at UCLA and now in NWSL

The former Bruin explains why she kneels for national anthem

NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

UCLA product Kaiya McCullough was drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 NWSL Draft by the Washington Spirit, and in a recent feature in Lindsay Gibbs’ Power Plays newsletter, the rookie discussed her background, activism and the subtle irony of her pro destination.

The defender grew up in Orange County. Her father is black and her mother is white, and in an area where racial diversity wasn’t common, McCullough says she knew she was different and was at times treated differently.

“Growing up with a white mother was very difficult for me because I didn’t look like her,” she said. “I’ve never had the privilege of not looking like I do. It has definitely been a conversation I’ve been having for most of my life.”

Entering UCLA in 2016, she had a stellar Freshman campaign which included All-Pac 12 Freshman team honors.

In 2017, McCullough decided to start kneeling during the national anthem, like NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Unlike her counterpart, McCullough received support from within her team and at UCLA, and kneeled for the rest of her college career.

“That was a pretty powerful moment for me. I was just thinking about the reasons I was doing it,” she said in remembering the first time she kneeled during the anthem in college.

“I was doing it because I was scared for my community, I was scared for my family, and I didn’t believe that I could sit there and show pride in the anthem when people were being treated so poorly. I think the weight of all of that really hit home as I was doing it. It felt like everything was happening, like, every force that had led me up to that point was converging on me at once.”

2020 NWSL Draft
McCullough on draft day.
Photo by Jose Argueta/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The irony, in a sense, is that in the NWSL the team she’s been drafted by, the Spirit, have a previous anti-kneeling track record. As Gibbs explains, Megan Rapinoe was thwarted in her attempt to kneel for the national anthem in 2016 because Washington’s majority owner at the time refused to play the song, and was openly critical of Rapinoe’s protest.

But in the meantime the Spirit have a new majority owner and has indicated players will be permitted to speak up, literally and symbolically. As a team statement noted: “We support Kaiya. We respect all of our players as individuals and we will not silence their voices.”

In a time when those fighting for racial equality and justice in our society are concerned momentum could be lost after a short time, athletes like McCullough appear prepared to make their points known and to advocate for change for the long haul.

Read all of Lindsay Gibbs’ feature with Kaiya McCullough here.