LOS ANGELES -- Players from the Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage took a knee during the national anthem Saturday as the National Women's Soccer League kicked off team sports in the US following the coronavirus shutdown with its Challenge Cup in Utah.
Players, wearing shirts that read "Black Lives Matter" fanned out from the midline and knelt along with players on the sidelines during the pre-game playing of the anthem.
"We took a knee today to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism against black people and people of color in America," the teams said in a joint statement. "We love our country and we have taken this opportunity to hold it to a higher standard.
"It is our duty to demand that the liberties and freedoms this nation was founded upon are extended to everyone."
Kneeling for the anthem made former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick a lightning rod for controversy when he began the gesture to protest racial injustice in 2016.
While Kaepernick has been out of an NFL job for four years, his protest has gained backing as demonstrations against racial injustice and police brutality have swept across the United States after the killing of unarmed black man George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police in May.
Athletes from an array of sports have now backed kneeling for the anthem in peaceful protest when their leagues return from the shutdowns forced by the coronavirus pandemic.
With the game underway, players sported Black Lives Matter armbands with their uniforms.
Forward Lynn Williams scored the game-winner for the Courage, heading in a cross from Samantha Mewis to secure the 2-1 triumph in injury time of the rematch of the league's 2017 and 2018 championship games.
North Carolina's Brazilian star Debinha had opened the scoring in the 75th only for Portland's Simone Naomi Charley to equalize in the 80th.
"Me and Sam have been working for years to try to get on the same page," Williams said. "I think in that moment, the clock is counting down, I like to think we have a mental connection. I just saw an opening and right when she looked up I thought 'she's going to cross it in.'"
While plans for the return of the NBA, NHL, MLS and Major League Baseball have garnered headlines, the NWSL on Saturday became the first pro team league in action.
It hasn't been smooth sailing for the tournament, scheduled to run until July 26, with the Orlando Pride pulling out last week after six players and four staff had tested positive for COVID-19.
The tournament is also missing some of the best-known US players, with Megan Rapinoe and two of her US teammates from last year's Women's World Cup champions -- Christen Press and Tobin Heath -- opting out.
But Rapinoe had her eye on the proceedings, tweeting her support for the pre-game protest.
"You love to see it," Rapinoe tweeted. "You love to see these women using their voice, demanding better for America, and for black people and people of color."
© Agence France-Presse
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