Kaiya McCullough takes a knee during the national anthem prior to UCLA’s NCAA first round game vs. Lamar University on Nov. 16, 2019. Credit: Jaylynne Heffernan/UCLA Athletics

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Kaiya McCullough lets out a heavy sigh. In the nights following the protests against racism and police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, McCullough cried herself to sleep and mental images of the protests jolted her awake. Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, was killed while in police custody on May 25, after a white cop pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

“I usually have so much to say about everything, and I am genuinely at a loss of words right now,” she says in an 11-minute Instagram video addressing systemic racism and the constant battles that black people in America face. “I have had literally hours of conversation about everything that is happening right now.”

She sighs again before continuing. 

The video, which she posted with the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, was a way to channel years of pent-up emotions. The 22-year-old wanted to start a conversation with her nearly 4,000 followers, inviting those who had questions about race in America to reach out to her. But more than that, the Washington Spirit rookie felt compelled to use her platform to speak out against white supremacy, professional or personal consequences be damned. 

The South Orange County, California, native is used to being outspoken. In 2017, McCullough made headlines for becoming one of the first college athletes to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. The decision elicited heavy criticism in the conservative corners of the internet and mixed reactions from classmates in her predominantly white hometown. She plans to kneel again when National Women’s Soccer League matches begin later this month.

No NWSL player other than World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe has knelt during the national anthem, and athletes like Rapinoe and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the movement, have faced professional repercussions for their actions. Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since 2016; Rapinoe was left off the U.S. Women’s National Team roster for months after her protests in the fall of 2016, whichsome interpreted as a punishment for kneeling. In January, the International Olympic Committeebanned “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling.”

McCullough says she is prepared for any potential backlash. Since college, her convictions have only gotten stronger.

“There’s a lot of people recently that are just now starting the conversation,” says Ki Muhammad, McCullough’s best friend. “She’s not afraid to let people know she’s about it. She’s not just one of these people who talk about these things, she’s been about it. And she does it with confidence.”

***

McCullough and Muhammad have been FaceTiming with each other for hours every day in recent weeks. The two were among the few black students at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California. Conversations with her black friends have allowed McCullough to feel safe and supported. 

She’s had to turn some people away from having “normal conversations,” because she didn’t have the emotional energy for them, but Muhammad is someone McCullough has leaned on for support since middle school.

“For me, it’s just coming to terms with what we’re dealing with … [and] just honestly offering a crutch of emotional support,” McCullough says. “Because in all of this, as it has always been, we’ve always had each other in regards to stuff when we’re talking about race.”

Growing up in a mostly white community, McCullough says she’s existed simultaneously in both black and white spaces her entire life. Her dad is black and her mom is white. In the Instagram video, she suggested that her being biracial could make non-black people more comfortable engaging in difficult conversations with her about race. She considers that a privilege she wants to use to initiate discussions, something she’s donesince an early age.

But it wasn’t until police shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 that McCullough began her public displays of protest. The video of the shooting horrified her, and, coupled with the unjust experiences she heard from her black friends and family members, she decided to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance during her junior year of high school. There would be days where she sat and watched as other students stood and put their hands over their hearts.

“Because I didn’t agree with the ‘liberty and justice for all’ part,” McCullough says. That was not reflective of the world she lived in, she explains.

Her classmates fumed. Muhammad says that she heard other students gossip about McCullough and complain about her being “disrespectful.” One day, a boy in McCullough’s class told her to go back to Africa.

The next year, Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign and the harassment became worse. McCullough’s classmates reposted his bombastic and racist comments on social media. She was constantly confronted by students wearing Make America Great Again apparel at school and spent nights engaging in Twitter arguments. 

“It felt like I was fighting almost every day with people about the election and just Trump’s policies and specifically how his rhetoric was just really inciting some racial divisions,” she says. 

***

The backlash from her high school classmates only empowered her when she arrived at UCLA as a member of the women’s soccer team.

McCullough can’t remember exactly what triggered her on Twitter during her sophomore year, but she knows the words made her cry. It was around the time that Trump had called Kaepernicka “son of a bitch” in 2017 for kneeling during the national anthem. 

Images of black men being killed by police and inflammatory words from the president pushed McCullough to a breaking point. In that moment, she texted her mom and explained what she planned to do. McCullough also reached out to her dad for his opinion, and then messaged her head coach, Amanda Cromwell, and asked to talk after practice.

She knew there would be potential backlash. McCullough was only a sophomore, and Trump had distorted the protest into a referendum on respecting the flag and the military, and few, if any, college students dared to challenge him in public. But the decision was, in her mind, already made. She would kneel during the national anthem. 

Cromwell, who was born in D.C. and graduated from Annandale High School, offered McCullough her support. The first time McCullough kneeled,several teammates joined her, with others putting a hand on each other’s shoulders as a show of solidarity. 

“I remember crying the whole time I was kneeling for the first time, and every time from there it got a little bit easier,” McCullough says. “I was less scared of the consequences. I was less scared about what people would say.”

McCullough recalls being booed in some stadiums, but says she received “overwhelming support” from her friends, coaches, and teammates. A year later,TMZ Sports published an article with a photo of McCullough and another black teammate, Kennedy Faulknor, kneeling before a game against Loyola Marymount University. The article has close to 400 comments, with many criticizing the women, some demanding that UCLA kick the players off the team, and others calling them “monkeys.”

McCullough calls that experience a turning point. She changed her major to political science shortly after and continued to kneel during the national anthem throughout her college career.

“I think it’s great. I think athletes need to use their platforms,” Cromwell says. “I think athletes need to decide what they believe in and what they want to support, because they do have a platform. I do think it’s our obligation, as athletes and coaches, to share our opinions. Other people share their thoughts. Why can’t people in the sports world?”

***

The Washington Spirit drafted McCullough, a second team All-Pac 12 defender, with the 32nd overall pick in the 2020 NWSL Draft this past January. In college, McCullough idolized Rapinoe, who remains the only professional women’s soccer player who has joined Kaepernick in his kneeling protest. Now, McCullough is playing in the same league as her, and will be part of the Spirit’s youthful core along with her UCLA teammate Ashley Sanchez, who the team selected with the fourth overall pick.

Four years ago, when Rapinoe’s Seattle Reign was set to play the Spirit in Maryland on Sept. 7, 2016, then-Spirit majority owner Bill Lynch surprised players by playing the national anthem while teams were still in the locker room. NWSL players strongly condemned the move, withRapinoe calling it “fucking unbelievable.” 

But the organization has changed since then. Lynch is now the minority owner, while local tech executive Steve Baldwin serves as the majority owner. Shortly after McCullough arrived on the team, she met with Baldwin, and the two spoke about McCullough’s interest in public policy. Baldwin promised that he’d work to help her find opportunities in that space.

More recently, the two had another long conversation in wake of the protests for racial justice. When the team heads to Utah later this month to play in the NWSL Challenge Cup, one of the first professional sporting events to return in the United States amid the COVID-19 pandemic, McCullough plans to kneel during the national anthem.

Baldwin says the team will support her.

“I find her to be extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and I made a commitment to her that I would support her in her pursuit of her interests and what she wants to do, just as I do every single one of our players,” he says. 

On Sunday, June 7, McCullough and a few teammates went to the newly renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza and then the U.S. Capitol to join the protestors. On social media, she regularly shares posts from activists. She jokes with Muhammad that when they return home at night from their day jobs, it’s “back to business” to dismantle systemic racism, and hopes those posting online in solidarity feel the same. 

McCullough is glad that people are opening up their hearts, educating themselves, and stepping out of their comfort zones in recognizing that racism exists. “But,” she adds, “that’s the bare minimum.”