At U.C.L.A., McCullough found a different culture. When she decided to kneel, her team found ways to show solidarity. They first took a knee as a group, and then those who wanted to stand during the anthem did. Sometimes, teammates knelt with her. Always, at least one put a hand on her shoulder.
It wasn’t always easy. During away games, there were sometimes catcalls, and there was a deluge of racist comments after TMZ picked up the story. McCullough was often nervous, she said, “but I did it anyway.” She does not expect to be alone on Saturday, or to escape notice.
The N.W.S.L.’s opening game, featuring the defending champion Courage against the Thorns, will air on CBS — the first time a league game has been shown on broadcast television. (McCullough and the Spirit will take on the Chicago Red Stars later that day, on CBS’s All Access streaming service.)
The N.W.S.L. Players Association said it planned to use Saturday’s national platform to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. It is unclear how many players plan to kneel, but there are other demonstrations planned, a player representative said. The N.W.S.L. said it had been “collaborating” with the union “to assist a player-led initiative in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the goal of eliminating racism and injustice.”
The efforts have been led by black players like Williams, Sydney Leroux and Crystal Dunn — voices that have not always been elevated in a sport where many of the biggest stars are white. (Dunn said recently that she felt she could not join the kneeling protest by Rapinoe, the team’s most popular player, in 2016 because she was “scared that it’s going to look different if a black girl on the team kneels.”)
The opportunity presented by the shift in support has been exhilarating, but also exhausting, for black players who have also been expected to train in the midst of the country’s turmoil. After Floyd’s death, McCullough said, it was sometimes hard to get out of bed, much less to play soccer.
Now she mostly feels excited. To her, this moment feels different.
“I’ve had so many more conversations in the last month than in the three years that I was kneeling,” she said.