IN the end, it all became too much for Kaiya McCullough to deal with.

Overwhelmed by the combination of civil unrest and the Covid-19 pandemic, this proud black American succumbed to the intense feelings of anxiety and sadness of her situation.

McCullough is a rookie defender with the Washington Spirit soccer team in the United States. Her solution was not just a change of climate, but of continents.

A mutual decision was made by Spirit and McCullough in her best interests. She is now plying her trade in the second division 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 told 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, supporting the controversial stance taken by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was protesting against racial injustice and police brutality.

McCullough is the daughter of a black father and white mother. But she clearly identifies as a black American and has always been sensitive to race issues of oppression and discrimination.

Indeed, McCullough opined she considered herself to be more “privileged” as a “light-skinned black woman.” Her fears are more for her father and his family, not her mother.

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,” causing her great angst.

“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 stated.

“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.”

It was in 2016 that Kaepernick first started taking a knee during the national anthem. The subject of much derision at the time, Kaepernick has been exonerated by recent upheavals in American society, in particular race relations.

Unrest that led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. A cause since supported globally by a variety of sports men and women, regardless of colour or race.

Nevertheless, McCullough has cast doubt on the intention of protesters, suggesting their actions of kneeling could be disingenuous.

Her concerns mirror those of Queens Park Rangers director of football Les Ferdinand, who earlier this month said the 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.”

McCullough decided to leave the US for her mental health.

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

Curiously, McCullough feels much more relaxed in Germany, given their much more serious approach to the Covid-19 pandemic compared to the US experience. She believes it will lead to an influx of American players into European leagues.

The US currently has a rate of more than 21,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases per one million of the population, compared with more than 3,300 per million in Germany.

“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 said.

“There were points that I was questioning whether I even wanted to do it anymore, 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.”

McCullough’s predicament is not unique. There is a limit to how much adversity the human psyche can tolerate.

Fortunately, the presence of sport acts as a psychological buffer for athlete and supporter that can offer some immunity to the impact on mental health in these most difficult times.


Image via Washington City Paper

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