U.S. soccer star and Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe was prevented by the opposing team, the Washington Spirit, Wednesday night from kneeling during the National Anthem after the Spirit altered its pregame ceremonies.
The Spirit released a statement prior to the match, saying they would rather move up the Anthem while the teams were off the field than “subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent.”
"We decided to play the Anthem in our stadium ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent," the National Women’s Soccer League team said in a statement. "We understand this may be seen as an extraordinary step, but believe it was the best option to avoid taking focus away from the game on such an important night for our franchise.
"To willingly allow anyone to hijack this tradition that means so much to millions of Americans and so many of our own fans for any cause would effectively be just as disrespectful as doing it ourselves.”
Rapinoe kneeled during the National Anthem Sunday before the Reign’s match against the Chicago Red Stars in solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has refused to stand during the Anthem to protest racial injustice and minority oppression. She said at the time she planned to continue to kneel.
After the match, Rapinoe called the Spirit’s actions “unbelievable.”
"It was incredibly distasteful, four days before one of the worst tragedies in our country, to say I tried to hijack this event,” she added, per The Washington Post.
During the match, a group of supporters yelled “Let her kneel.”
The Spirit said team owner Bill Lynch is a veteran who has lost friends in overseas conflicts, as had his close friends.
"The tradition of honoring our military and our patriotism before our games is very important to us," the statement said. "We strongly feel that there are better ways to begin a conversation about a cause than tarnishing a tradition that is so important to so many."
Earlier Wednesday, the Reign said they are standing by Rapinoe. In a statement, the team said it recognizes Rapinoe's action "was offensive to some and a source of inspiration to others."
"We will continue to encourage all Reign FC players to participate in the pre-match ceremony, which honors those who have served and made sacrifices on our behalf," the Reign said. "We will also continue to allow players to participate in the pre-match ceremony in a manner consistent with their personal beliefs, reflecting our respect for the rights earned and defended by those fighting for our nation.
Kaepernick drew attention and massive scrutiny when he remained seated on the bench before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Last Thursday night in San Diego, he and safety Eric Reid kneeled during the Anthem before a game against the Chargers.
On Sunday night, Rapinoe kneeled during the Anthem prior to the match against the Chicago Red Stars, in what she called "a little nod' to Kaepernick.
"I think it's actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn't. We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country," Rapinoe told the website American Soccer Now afterward.
She went on to say: "Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it."
The 31-year-old Rapinoe, who has played for Seattle since 2013, has been with the U.S. national team since 2006 and has played in two Women's World Cups and two Olympics.
She injured her knee last December during training and required surgery, but was able to come back and play in the Rio Games. The United States, which had won three straight gold medals in the sport, was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Sweden.
Since coming out in 2012, Rapinoe has been a devoted advocate for LGBT rights and has worked with the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and other organizations.
Rapinoe also has been vocal about pay equity, and was among five national team players who loaned their names to a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging wage discrimination. The players claim that, in some cases, members of the team make up to four times less than their male national team counterparts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.