The footballer who left the US for her mental health


Kaiya McCullough kneels during the national anthem while playing for UCLA
McCullough first took a knee during the national anthem while at UCLA

Kaiya McCullough just needed to get out of the United States.

A rookie defender for Washington Spirit, she should have been living her dream. Instead, she felt weighed down, full of intense emotions and “grief and heartache” as a black American, in addition to the fears felt by many living in the midst of a global pandemic.

Moving to another continent in the current climate wouldn’t be many people’s choice but McCullough felt she had no other option.

And so, earlier this month, Spirit waived her contract to allow her to leave, and she is now playing for a second division club in Germany.

“I just wanted to put myself in a position to be the absolute best that I could be, and in the environment I was in I just didn’t think that was happening for me,” the 22-year-old tells BBC Sport.

“As stressful as its been moving across the Atlantic Ocean, I think that I definitely will get out of it what I came here for, which is just like a mental health break, just getting out of that atmosphere that was really happening in America right now.”

McCullough first started taking a knee during the national anthem when she was in her sophomore (second) year at University of California, Los Angeles – doing so in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was protesting against racial injustice and police brutality.

The daughter of a black father and white mother, McCullough is passionate about activism and knew she would take her stance into professional football when she graduated from UCLA.

She says she is “privileged” as a “light-skinned black woman”, meaning she does not fear so much for her own personal safety, but does so for that of her father and his family.

But, after signing for the Spirit earlier this year, she has found her rookie season “overwhelming” in a US that is “very truly deeply divided”, often finding herself in tears morning until night.

“I felt like it was my responsibility, as somebody who was so passionate about the cause already, to sort of uplift and guide the conversation in a direction that was really productive,” she says.

“I thought that it was almost my duty to take on the responsibility of educating team-mates and trying to inspire change, and that can be really overwhelming, especially while trying to get your footing in a league you’ve never played in.

“The courage I have seen across sports, across the world, specifically with black athletes that are carrying this burden, is immeasurable because having lived with that burden it is heavy.

“There were parts when I was asked to compartmentalise what was going on in the world and just focus on my sport, but being a black woman I can’t do that, I can’t take off the colour of my skin, I can’t turn off the feelings of grief that I feel as I mourn with my community.”

Kaiya McCullough and team-mates kneel while wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts
Washington Spirit were “very supportive” of McCullough’s decision to move to Europe

‘Kneeling has been normalised’

Four years have passed since Kaepernick first started taking a knee during the national anthem, and McCullough says she is boosted by other athletes “standing in solidarity with each other”, in addition to “the world coming together to help us right our wrongs of the past”.

But she has questioned the intentions of other protesters, suggesting their actions of kneeling could be disingenuous.

Her words echo those of Queens Park Rangers director of football Les Ferdinand, who earlier this month saidthe impact of taking a knee had been “diluted”.

“On one hand, it’s so amazing these conversations are happening and that’s the reason I started kneeling in the first place, because I thought that it was a great way to spark conversations,” she says.

“But on the other hand I do think that because kneeling has become normalised with the Black Lives Matter movement that it sometimes borders on performative.

“If somebody is kneeling with the intent and conviction of education and inspiring change, if they are doing the work beyond just kneeling, I think it’s a great action.

“But if that’s the only thing you’re doing I think it brings into question your intentions, which I think is kind of a big thing happening in the US right now.”

Physically removing herself from the US, McCullough says, will be “great for her in the long run” despite being away from loved ones.

“I can’t help anybody if I’m not in a good place myself mentally,” she says.

Coronavirus played its part in her decision to move to Europe too, moving from a “terrifying” US, where she says she “didn’t want to go anywhere, because people just don’t wear masks, don’t social distance, don’t really take precautions”.

She feels more comfortable now in Germany – a country McCullough says has “handled the pandemic pretty well”, adding she believes it is one reason for the influx of American players into European leagues.

The US currently has a rate of more than 21,000 confirmed coronavirus cases per one million of the population, compared with more than 3,300 per million in Germany.

McCullough was also struggling with lack of playing time for the Spirit, not helped by the pandemic, that saw her confidence plummet.

“Being an athlete, having to practise all the time and not getting the opportunity to play definitely took a toll on my mental health and my confidence as a soccer player,” she says.

“There were points that I was questioning whether I even wanted to do it any more, if I even wanted to play. It was a combination of everything, everything was just compounding, so I just thought it was best to go re-find my love for the sport, re-find my joy.”


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