Crystal Dunn’s play on pitch brings weight to actions off it

The North Carolina Courage and USWNT star has become a leading voice in social issues

Former UNC standout Crystal Dunn has become one of the world’s top soccer players, starring for the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage and the U.S. Women’s National Team, and she’s also been an influential voice among women in sports. (Bill Kostroun / AP Photo)

Unless it’s the Olympics or a World Cup, women’s soccer rarely rates more than a blip on the radar of most American sports fans.

So when the National Women’s Soccer League had the nation’s attention this summer as the first league to return to the field during the coronavirus pandemic, Crystal Dunn knew she needed to do something to take advantage of the situation.

Especially given the climate of unrest that existed around the country at the time in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis.

The North Carolina Courage star raised her voice as a black woman and helped organize other players on her team and others in the league during the NWSL’s Challenge Cup tournament to call attention to the issues of systematic racism and police brutality.

When the Courage took on the Portland Thorns in the event’s nationally televised first game from a quarantined “bubble” in Herriman, Utah, members of both teams — wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts — knelt during the national anthem.

Because of her efforts, Dunn was included by Sports Illustrated recently on its list of the most powerful, influential and outstanding women in sports today. The former North Carolina Tar Heel and current U.S. National team star is the only person with direct ties to the Old North State to earn such recognition.

“We knew we were going to be the first league back, and we wish we had more time to do all the things we really wanted to do around the message of Black Lives Matter,” Dunn said of the Challenge Cup demonstration. “It was a matter of collectively having that very powerful message displayed on TV. We were the first teams back, and we wanted to make sure we were all on the same page.”

As passionate as she is for the cause now, Dunn — one of the NWSL’s few African American players — admits that she hasn’t always been one to, as SI put it, “speak out, set the bar and make a difference.”

Last summer during the FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, she stood at attention and watched while white teammate Megan Rapinoe took a knee each time “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played during the tournament the U.S. team eventually won.

“On the national team, Megan Rapinoe was the first to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and at that time I was so grateful to her,” Dunn said. “But I was also like, ‘I’m the only (African American) on this team. I don’t have that support from others that look like me or have shared experiences like me.

“I just remember at that time I didn’t have a lot of black teammates. That’s something that I, on the side, am trying to help change.”

The events of this summer gave the NWSL the national platform and spurred Dunn to bring her efforts more into public view.

“Kneeling in the NWSL Challenge Cup was about my teammates supporting me and showing solidarity,” she said. “That’s really what it comes down to, that your teammates have your back and are wanting to put out change in the world, and you want to be behind the change.”

As vocal as Dunn has become on social issues, the New York native’s words hold more weight because of her play on the field.

A 28-year-old wing who led UNC to a national championship in 2013 before her selection as a first-round NWSL draft pick, she became the league’s youngest Most Valuable Player in 2015. Dunn led the Courage to two straight championships, scoring a goal in the 2019 title game against the Chicago Red Stars, before this year’s season was canceled because of COVID-19.

Although the team didn’t win the Challenge Cup, an eight-team tournament held as a shorter alternative to the regular season, Dunn scored a goal in a 2-0 win against Sky Blue FC on July 13 to help the Courage finish the round-robin preliminaries unbeaten.

She is currently in Commerce City, Colorado, along with Courage teammates Abby Dahlkemper and Lynn Williams, participating in an 11-day U.S. National Team training camp — the first preparations for next summer’s rescheduled Olympics in Tokyo.

And an even bigger stage to help spread the message.