As systematic racism and police brutality continue to be primary topics of conversation these days, there are people that have ‘revelations’ or ‘epiphanies’ and ‘realize’ they haven’t seen the whole picture in the past. None of these massive problems still facing our country today are news to soccer star Kaiya McCullough, but it’s still not hurtful to see racism so prevalent in the United States in 2020.
“Anybody that doesn’t see how deeply ingrained racism is in the fabric of our country is quite frankly either ignorant, delusional, or evil,” she told BGN. “It’s very disheartening to see that even though progress is being made, there is a long way to go until there is true equality (and beyond that, equity).”
A lot of athletes have taken a more public anti-racism stance this year with incidents like the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor all over the headlines. For Kaiya McCullough, when it comes to voicing her opinion against racism, she’s not new to this; she’s true to this.
Back when she was a star at UCLA, she began taking a knee during the national anthem, following the example of former NFL star Colin Kaepernick. Discussing the former 49ers quarterback, she said, “I think Colin Kaepernick is a modern-day civil rights hero, and should be respected as such. His bravery and voice inspired me to find my own.”
“I have written several posts about my decision to kneel, so I won’t get too into it here, but ultimately it came down to the fact that I was tired of having a platform and not using it to speak about the issues I cared about. I started kneeling specifically in protest to police brutality and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, but I think it’s clear that there are many other reasons to protest our national anthem.”
After being drafted into the NWSL by the Washington Spirit in January, McCullough felt a move away from the club was necessary for her career and requested to leave. “The process was quite simple, I asked, and they made the process super easy for me,” Kai said. “I felt very supported by the Spirit throughout the entire process. The decision came because I simply wasn’t getting the playing time I wanted and needed. With soccer, you have to play games to continue developing, and that wasn’t happening for me.”
But, the move was not solely soccer-related. “I needed a bit of a mental health break with everything going on in the world, and coupled with the fact that our country’s response to COVID has prohibited a lot of games happening, it seemed like the best decision for me,” she explained.
When her departure was set, Washington Post soccer writer Steven Goff tweeted about it. Then, the below exchanges happened in response to his announcing the news.
she's a star?
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) September 8, 2020
You're right. I apologize. I should've said: Like many NWSL players, she is seeking opportunities to further her career and experiences in the growing women's soccer market in Europe.
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) September 8, 2020
“I still don’t think that Goff’s reply tweet can be considered an ‘apology’. I learned a long time ago not to expect much from men in terms of getting over their own egos and pride to respect women for what they do, especially in sports, so I was not expecting an apology,” she said about the situation. “Nor did I need one. As confident of a woman that I am, words hurt, and I feel like a lot of people don’t realize how human some of their favorite players are. I’ve opened up about my life very publicly on social media, and though there are aspects of it that are so worth it, a lot of times I wish I could just disappear.”
“I am a 22 year old woman trying to find where she fits in the world, while also managing a challenging career and trying to make an impact in the world. I’m only human. Ultimately, though, I don’t care about being a star. I just want to leave a positive mark on the world, inspiring change, compassion, and empathy whenever I can.”
After that exchange and with her announced departure, Kai received a ton of love and support on social media from players, fans, writers, and everyone in between. She said, “It was awesome. Like I said, I don’t need the outside validation, or to be a “star”, but knowing that there are people out there that cared about my journey and how I was feeling was really incredible. It gives me faith that there are still good people in the world!”
Now, she’s a member of Würzburger Kickers in Germany and has also launched an exciting adventure off the pitch. “I made the decision to start BLCK Book Club a few weeks before I left the US. I knew I wanted to do it, so a lot of the time in between the conception of the idea and actually announcing it was figuring out logistics,” McCullough explained. “The support I’ve had thus far has been amazing, and there are several people that have helped me get it off the ground. Obviously there is still a lot of work to be done before the first meeting, but I hope people understand how much effort I’m putting into creating this space! The first book we will be reading is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, and yes, it is still open to join!”
Kai’s a talented player and she can definitely play this sport for a long time at a high level, but her impact on this world will go well beyond the soccer pitch. Five years from now, what will Kaiya McCullough be doing? “Hopefully I’ll either be back in school or one degree smarter,” she responded. “I want to go back to school to put myself in the best position to create change. I know that soccer won’t be forever, but I want to leave the soccer world knowing I did everything in my power to make it better. There is so much to be improved, and I want to be a part of the solution.”
“But back to the question, in five years, I hope to be more empowered, more educated, and even more inspired to change the world!”