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NWSL says players can stay in locker rooms while national anthem plays

7:31 PM ET

Graham HaysESPN.com

CloseGraham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

Players in the NWSL Challenge Cup now have the option of remaining in the locker room during the national anthem, the league announced in a statement Monday.

The change comes after the first two games of the league’s return to competition this past weekend produced striking images of most players kneeling during the anthem but some choosing to remain standing — images that arguably overshadowed the games that followed.

“The NWSL stands behind every player, official and staff member,” the league said in a statement that noted it consulted with players, club officials and other stakeholders. “Kneel on the field. Stand with your hand over your heart. Honor your feelings in the privacy of the locker room or at midfield.”

Although there are no fans in attendance for the Challenge Cup, a 23-game month-long tournament in the Salt Lake City area marked the return of professional team-sports leagues in the United States over the weekend. The NWSL continues to play the anthem before games, with all matches televised or streamed online, and Saturday’s broadcasts including the anthem.

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All 22 starters knelt during a live performance of the anthem before Saturday’s nationally televised opening game between North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns. Players from those teams then released a joint statement explaining they were protesting “racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism” with the gesture.

But the images from the day’s second game between Chicago Red Stars and Washington Spirit were less congruent. Four starters remained standing during the anthem, including at…