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Crystal Dunn, one of the world’s best soccer players, feels ‘like someone has dimmed my light’

Even as she appears in her second Olympics, Dunn faces problems common to Black women

The grass is cut, field lines are drawn and cameras are readied. The stage is set for Crystal Dunn and her teammates on the U.S. women’s national soccer team to embark on their 2020 Olympic Games campaign. Dunn, competing in her second Olympics, is one of the team’s star players, yet she still awaits full appreciation.

“I feel like someone has dimmed my light in a sense,” Dunn told The Undefeated. Despite being ranked as the world’s sixth-best footballer, according to ESPN, Dunn says she feels unable to fully shine both on and off of the pitch. Her experience is not uncommon for dark-skinned Black women.

You have to be twice as good to get half as much.

The adage, told to my mother, grandmother and Black women in every corner of America for generations, still holds true. While the exact figure may be up for debate, the notion that Black women have to do more than their white counterparts and get rewarded less remains true in every industry. 

Black women are supported less, compensated less and protected less. Soccer is no exception.

Support from an employer comes in many forms. On a women’s sports team, for example, support from the marketing department requires adequately aiding every member of the team during a photo shoot. On the women’s national team, white stylists who don’t understand how to work with Black skin and hair are commonplace. It takes a different set of skills to style kinky hair, apply makeup to melanated skin and shoot and edit photos of darker-skinned subjects.

Crystal Dunn during a training session at the practice fields on July 10 in Miyazaki, Japan.

Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

“Whenever there was a photo shoot, it was always a struggle for me to feel comfortable speaking to someone who’s doing my hair and makeup, which is something a lot of my teammates don’t understand,” Dunn said. “They take it for granted that they just get set up with someone who does their hair and makeup.”

Recognition is part of the appeal of professional sports and publicity is, in part, curated by an athlete’s team. The team’s media department takes photos, writes articles and posts on social media. With international recognition, one would expect Dunn to be among those regularly featured on the team’s accounts, as well as in campaigns from outside of the organization.

But Dunn said she feels as though she receives less publicity compared with her contemporaries, and fewer endorsement deals and sponsorships, which make up a significant portion of an athlete’s income.

Studies show that attractive people are given favorable treatment, which is most pronounced in the workplace. In the U.S., attractiveness often coincides with Eurocentric standards of beauty. White beauty standards influence whose images the national team publicizes, which signals to brands who they should put their money toward. Dunn, with brown skin and Black features, is outside of this cycle of reward.

Consequently, Black women are unable to be their full selves. “I think as Black women we can get caught up in straight hair and straight ponies. That’s how we can kind of become marketable,” Dunn said. Black women feel pressured to adopt white styles instead of presenting their hair as it grows naturally from their scalp. Only now, in her fifth year on the national team, does Dunn feel comfortable rocking her curly Afro.

That heightened sense of scrutiny is felt by Black women in realms outside of appearance. Research shows that Black women’s behavior is scrutinized more heavily than white women’s, and Black women are more likely to be fired as a result. And Dunn said she feels the difference.

“I think as a woman of color on this team, especially a dark-skinned woman, I’ve always felt pressure,” she said.

Several U.S. players, including forward Megan Rapinoe (right) and defender Crystal Dunn (left), kneel during the national anthem before an international friendly match against Colombia on Jan. 18 at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2016, Megan Rapinoe talked with Dunn about kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was protesting systemic racism in the criminal justice system. Dunn wanted to join her teammate in protest, but after much deliberation, she decided not to do so:

“I saw that [Rapinoe] wasn’t dressing for games, wasn’t starting in games. … And I remember being like, if that’s happening to [her], what do you think is going to happen to me.”

Rapinoe, in an interview with The Undefeated, said she understood Dunn’s thinking. “I totally understand and empathize and support the decision that [Crystal] made, because I’m not sure what happens after that with her. I mean, her talent is exceptional and you would love to think that she would rise above it. And maybe eventually she would after three or four years, but as a young player who was just left off the World Cup roster the year before … that’s not her responsibility to put her career on the line.”

Last summer, the U.S. Soccer Federation repealed a 2017 policy requiring players to stand during the anthem. Dunn joined Rapinoe in kneeling for the anthem last year, but team members have since decided to stand during the playing of the anthem.  

Concerns about being fully seen and free to express yourself aren’t limited to issues off the field. Oftentimes, Black players aren’t viewed as multifaceted and recognized in their full glory. Rather, they are flattened into one dimension as an athlete.

While light-skinned Black women face discrimination, darker-skinned women encounter a unique set of challenges. Darker-skinned women are always seen as Black, as opposed to Black women who can pass as white or be read as racially ambiguous.

“One of the first things we always hear about Crystal is how fast she is. And she is fast. Of course, she’s obviously very speedy, but Crystal is also one of the smartest, one of most technical, and one of most strategic players,” said Rapinoe.   

Rapinoe compared how Dunn is portrayed to common descriptions of Mallory Pugh, a fair-skinned Black member of the national team player pool. “There’s definitely a difference between Mal and Crystal. Mal is described as technical and a goal scorer, and Mal is fast as s—, too. But that’s not the first thing that comes to mind,” said Rapinoe.

Crystal Dunn is introduced during the send-off ceremony following the series match against Mexico at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field on July 5 in East Hartford, Connecticut.

Elsa/Getty Images

As a result of not being seen for all that she is, Dunn did not feel valued for what she could do on the pitch. “I think I am now currently in a position where I am feeling more valued, but for a large part of my career, no,” she said. 

“We need to feel like we can exist in a space that may not have been set up for us to exist in.” 

The low point of Dunn’s experience with the national team came when she was the last player cut from the 2015 World Cup roster. Was Dunn good enough to be among the 23 players chosen to represent the United States on the world’s biggest stage? Absolutely. But just as my mother and grandmother were told, you have to be twice as good to get half as much. 

Studies show that Black workers often have to be more qualified than their white counterparts to be selected for a job. A look at Dunn’s accomplishments reflects a similar theme. While at the University of North Carolina, Dunn won both ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Offensive Player of the Year — the ACC’s first women’s soccer player to do so. She was awarded player of the year three times, the first to do so since Mia Hamm, and won the Hermann Trophy, which is given to the best player in college soccer. Collegiate success does not inherently merit selection for the national team, but to put matters into perspective, Alex Morgan, the second-most prolific international goal scorer among active players, was only a Hermann Trophy finalist and received no conference player of the year honors.

Dunn’s selection as the No. 1 pick in the 2014 college draft, and strong performances in her rookie season in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), proved insufficient to earn selection to the national team in 2015. Five months after being cut from the World Cup roster, Dunn became the youngest player to receive the NWSL Golden Boot and Player of the Year awards, breaking the league’s goal per game average to do so.

When asked about Dunn’s absence from the World Cup roster, the coaching staff claimed Dunn didn’t fit what they were looking for. As coaches make subjective decisions between players who have marginal differences in ability, they too are subject to conscious and unconscious bias. “Fit,” or the lack thereof, has been heavily studied in relation to hiring practices. Researchers find that gatekeepers seek and reward candidates who are similar to themselves. Establishing similarity can be necessary for believing the subject has potential for future success.

In Dunn’s case, she neither looked like, nor was attributed the qualities of white players, those which her white coaches can more easily identify with. White players are seen as skilled, intelligent and savvy; Black players are seen as athletic.

In soccer, defense requires less creativity and playmaking compared with the midfield or forward positions. Midfielders, in particular, are commonly credited for being the team’s most skilled and savvy members – the same characteristics that are associated with white players in soccer and other sports.

Stereotypes that paint Dunn as simply an athlete shape how viewers of the sport – coaches included – delineate the bounds of what she is capable of, and consequently, what position she should play. Though Dunn is traditionally a midfielder (her position on the Portland Thorns), for the national team she is played at outside back. Her amazing ability to weave through defenders, make plays in tight spaces, serve balls to teammates on a dime, and score incredible goals is constrained. Being assigned to the defense means she has less freedom to do what she enjoys most.

“People really don’t understand that it’s not an easy thing to do – to play one position and truly feel like your most authentic self, and then be told, ‘Hey, we need you here. This is where we see you,’ ” Dunn said. “I’ve made it to this level where people dream of making. But at the same time, I do feel like I live in a state of constant dissonance, where even though I’m so honored and so grateful, a part of me is still limited.”

Black women are shortchanged in many areas, but what is the most tragic loss? In Dunn’s case: joy. 

“I’m not living my most authentic self. But the moment I have free rein and I have the ability to connect further up the pitch, things like that, I fall in love again. It brings me a lot of joy.”

Liner Notes

This article has been corrected to reflect that Crystal Dunn and Megan Rapinoe discussed kneeling during the national anthem in 2016. Rapinoe said she did not ask Dunn to kneel.

Mariah Lee is a professional athlete and freelance writer. She holds a B.A. from Stanford University and a M.S. from the Wake Forest School of Business. Follow her on Instagram @merdashewrote.