Pro Soccer Star Kaiya McCullough Wants to Change the World

Answering the question of whether or not she actually had retired was not something Kaiya McCullough found easy to do.

On Aug. 11 an article was published by The Washington Post. In it, McCullough had gone on the record detailing the abuse she’d suffered at the hands of her former head coach, Richie Burke of the NWSL’s Washington Spirit. That same morning, she tweeted a statement saying rather than tarnish her cherished memories of soccer, she’s decided to walk away—for now at least.

Ten days later, McCullough was back in Orange County, the conservative enclave of Southern California where she grew up. The seven months spent with the Spirit had been “one of the most emotionally draining times in my life,” the 23-year-old self-described radical told The Daily Beast over the phone. The constant verbal attacks, the bullying, casual cruelty, and “racially insensitive” comments from Burke made McCullough’s self-esteem and self-confidence waver. Over time, the trauma she experienced inevitably became intertwined with and inseparable from her perception of the sport as a whole.

“It took the spark and the joy away from me,” she said. McCullough was released from her contract with the Spirit in September 2020, allowing her to sign with a German pro team. But had she continued to ply her trade, either in the U.S. or abroad, “[Soccer] would eventually be completely ruined for me.” Like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, McCullough, who is of mixed-race background, has chosen to prioritize her own mental wellbeing. And that decision has already had an impact.

At a match on Aug. 29, fans chanted and brought signs, calling for Spirit co-owner and CEO Steve Baldwin to sell his interest. Baldwin had brought Burke aboard despite prior allegations he’d abused players. A former team official told the Post that Baldwin was aware of these allegations but hired him anyway. Now Baldwin is locked in a behind-the-scenes power struggle to retain control of the team. An NWSL investigation is ongoing.

Hours before the Post’s original story was published, the Spirit announced Burke had been reassigned, citing “health concerns.” Sources told The Athletic that in reality, Burke had been fired. If there were issues with his health, the sources hadn’t heard about them. (The Spirit, who recently hired a new club president, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)

Three other Spirit players similarly ditched the team because of Burke in the last two years, the Post reported. McCullough, though, was the only Spirit player who put her name to the allegations. While she had been worried prior to the article’s publication, the support she’s received since then from fellow athletes, friends, and even strangers, has only confirmed she was in the right: being vulnerable and publicly sharing her truths can be a liberating act and inspire others to follow in her lead. This, more than anything, is why she spoke out.

As McCullough put it: “Solidarity is what motivated me.”

But McCullough has never been one to remain silent. Throughout her amateur and professional career, McCullough has called out injustices and inequities—particularly in women’s sports and particularly when they affect athletes of color.

Following the protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, McCullough, then a sophomore in high school, rebelled against reciting the pledge of allegiance. She couldn’t accept repeating the words “liberty and justice for all,” given the prevalence of state-sanctioned violence and systemic oppression. She was told to “go back to Africa,” and a white male classmate was so incensed, he screamed at her, she wrote in 2020. McCullough returned the favor and yet she was the one reprimanded by a teacher.

The incident only hardened her resolve. In autumn 2017, McCullough was attending UCLA on an athletic scholarship. She told Lindsay Gibbs at Power Plays that hearing then-President Donald Trump use Colin Kaepernick as a culture-war cudgel in 2017 proved to be the then-sophomore’s breaking point. She began to kneel during the national anthem, too. Her fellow Bruins joined in.

“I was doing it because I was scared for my community,” she explained to Gibbs. “I was scared for my family, and I didn’t believe that I could sit there and show pride in the anthem when people were being treated so poorly.”

There were moments when she was booed at road games, various right-wing figures groused, and the comments section of a TMZ article was filled with vitriol and racist invectives. The gossip site’s comments section has since been deleted but per the Washington City Paper, some called for her to be booted from the team. Others referred to her and a teammate as “monkeys.”

These days, kneeling during the anthem has lost potency, said McCullough. Despite remaining “a powerful symbol for Black and brown liberation,” to a certain degree, the act has been co-opted, a performative way for individuals and corporate entities alike to avoid addressing the larger criticisms while expressing the bare minimum of support. “That just leaves the door open for even more radical action, in terms of protesting the conditions that we’re living in right now,” she said.

McCullough has taken it upon herself to do just that.

Her pro career began in 2020, during a season truncated by the pandemic and amid the largest civil rights protests in U.S. history. McCullough was an active participant.

The year was marked by a serious uptick in athlete activism. While she was quick to praise the “pockets of awesome change,” and “very powerful” displays, McCullough does have some criticisms. Historically, athletes like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali have always been at the vanguard of social change. (McCullough also said she looked up to fellow UCLA alums like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Arthur Ashe.) In contrast, “I feel a lot of the athletes these days are just failing,” she said. Not that she’d oppose sports stars receiving just compensation. But partly, she surmised, the tax bracket reached by her male counterparts has made them hesitant.

“Only one league got it right, and that was the WNBA,” according to McCullough, citing the seminal role the WNBA played in the 2020 Senate runoff elections in Georgia. Unlike other pro leagues, they weren’t hampered by “the complacency of white people,” she said, “It was because of whiteness… and the discomfort that people had in confronting their own whiteness.”

She wished the NWSL and some white NWSL players had been more vocal, too, and felt “actively harmed” by their silence. “Soccer is a very white sport” in the U.S., said McCullough. “A lot of people in soccer are so comfortable with whiteness being the norm, there isn’t a great deal of incentive to change.”

When McCullough was still young, it wasn’t always easy to scrape together enough cash to cover all the associated costs—traveling to tournaments, paying for hotels, and more—that were required in order to get in front of college recruiters and scouts. She’s grateful her middle-class family was able to pull it off, but those financial barriers to entry helped reinforce racial imbalances. For the entirety of the 18 years she’s competed, not once has she had a Black head coach.

“If there were more Crystal Dunns when I was young,” she said, referring to the National Team winger, Black Lives Matter supporter, and staunch advocate for equal pay in soccer, “I think it would have been a really, really powerful thing for me.”

Seeing athletes like Simone Biles and others, choosing to prioritize or even, after years of self-induced silence, go public about mental health issues was a source of great inspiration. “In this country, Black women have had to shoulder a very, very heavy burden, historically,” she said, and do so without showing signs of weakness, let alone complain. Perhaps, then, that explains the keening response to Biles. “If they so much as crack a little bit, it’s seen as some crazy happening,” McCullough said. She’s come to realize self-care shouldn’t be deemed a secondary concern, sacrificed at the altar of her undervalued labor.

“If my body and mental health is being used as a commodity and this labor source for these while being treated like crap, what’s the point?” she asked, especially given the relatively meager salaries earned by even the top-tier women’s soccer stars in America.

McCullough is tackling that problem as well.

She’s a co-founder of United College Athlete Advocates (UCAA), an nonprofit that advocates for college athletes’ rights. Their goal, McCullough said, is to help athletes organize, and hopefully alter the power dynamics between athletes and their de facto employers: the NCAA. The first step is often educational. Often “athletes don’t know that they’re being exploited in these really insidious ways,” she said. The UCAA announced its launch not long after the Supreme Court granted athletes the right to be compensated for the use of their name, image, or likeness (NIL). Even if it marked a step in the right direction, the fundamental problems with amateurism remain in place. Further, an additional burden is being placed on those self-same athletes: In a relatively unregulated market, with potentially billions in corporate cash, and without any help from an agent or representative, they now have to sort through complex offers from entities who may not have their best interests at heart.

“It’s the Wild, Wild West,” McCullough said. “You have these really exploitative companies like Barstool [Sports] that are now jumping at the bit,” to partner with teenagers in many instances.

“Super racist, super toxic” companies, she added, are eyeballing an “exploited labor force that doesn’t really know what they’re doing, or doesn’t have the toolset to be able to make an informed decision.” (Barstool Sports did not respond to a request for comment.)

In the end, there was one silver lining to McCullough’s tumultuous year. “I feel like I’m seeing the world in the way that I’m supposed to,” she said. “Sports are just a microcosm for how capitalism is going to ruin the world—or already is.”

It’s rare to hear an athlete (or any public figure) lay blame with such specificity and righteousness. McCullough describes herself as a “radical.” If her beliefs and actions cause dismay or incur a backlash, she doesn’t care. In fact, alienating those who won’t ever see it her way is a necessary part of the process.

Or to put it more bluntly, “Fuck people’s comfort,” she said.

“I don’t care if people are comfortable. I just want change to happen.”

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