Visibility Matters: An Interview with Crystal Dunn

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The Washington Spirit have had quite the year, dominating the 2016 league standings for most of the season. But in recent weeks, the team’s momentum appears to have slowed as the regular season winds down. This week Washington was looking for a victory against Chicago in order to lock up the league shield, which would have given them a strong finish to carry into their home-field semifinal coming up this Friday night.

But the Chicago Red Stars played spoiler on Saturday, winning the game and solidifying their place as the number three seed. Awarded to the team with best season record, the league shield was once firmly in the Spirit’s grasp, but the winner will now come down to whether or not the Portland Thorns draw or win over Sky Blue tonight.  Yet, despite the 3-1 result against Chicago, Crystal Dunn, one of Washington Spirit’s talented forwards, had a strong game, netting the team’s only goal, and helping to develop much of Washington’s offensive presses.

After the loss, Dunn took time to speak with Backline Soccer about the result, sharing thoughts on her change in play this year, as well as the upcoming playoffs and the unpredictability of the 2016 NWSL season. We also discussed recent headlines regarding Megan Rapinoe’s protest that started in Chicago a few weeks ago, and the importance of respecting people’s opinions while also respecting the right to protest. And we took up the issue of the particular pressures that athletes of color may carry in the sports they play.


Backline Soccer (BS): Tonight’s game had playoff implications for both teams. Can you share your thoughts on the game?

Crystal Dunn (CD): Yeah, it was a bit of a bummer. Obviously we stepped into this game wanting to win the shield. We wanted to come out and do really well so we could have that good momentum heading into the semis;  it didn’t go our way. I think we had our chances. We didn’t get into our rhythm until after being down 2-0, and unfortunately it’s tough coming back in this league from being down 2-0. So for us, I feel like the game was lost in the first fifteen minutes. We worked hard to get back in the rhythm of things, we did a good job of that, but it just didn’t go our way.

BS: You’ve had an interesting role on the Spirit this year. There has been a lot mentioned about your lack of goals this season, but your assist game is very strong. Do you feel any different having scored a couple goals now?

CD: You know I’ve played a different role this year. New coach. New system. I will say, it hasn’t been easy this year. Just because I’ve played in the nine [position], I’ve played the seven, I’ve played the eleven. It’s not like last year where I was just in one position and that was it. That was my position. That was my role. To just be in that one spot. Honestly, looking back, I’ve never had a season where I’ve had five assists and for me you have to take that for what it is. I don’t look at this year as a disappointment in any way. I look at it at as, “hey, I’ve never assisted so many goals in a season,” so it’s something to look forward to.

BS: As far as a season in general, the NWSL this year has been kind of unpredictable. Playoff opponents still up in the air, down to the wire, final week scenarios. Was prepping for tonight’s game perhaps a playoff preview?

CD: It’s been wild! I think for us we know that were hosting. And I think that is something to take the weight off of our shoulders. We know we have a good field, we know we play really well on our field and for our home fans. For us, tonight was obviously disappointing. But I think going into the semis I think we’re going to regroup and refocus.

BS:  It was a busy night in Chicago tonight. Many events, including tonight’s game. Chance the Rapper is on a huge tour right now. He planned a whole special event just for his hometown Chicago. In the event that this game wasn’t scheduled for Saturday, but instead on Sunday, would you have tried to find tickets to the concert?

CD: One hundred percent. YES! Absolutely.

BS: Quick follow up, who is the one teammate who would’ve been trying to scrounge up tickets with you?

CD: Teammate! It would definitely be Estelle Johnson. She’s freakin’ silly, and she’s all about getting into shenanigans with me. So for sure her. She’s my ride or die on the team.

BS: Chicago made some headlines the other week as well. Your national team teammate Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the anthem here in the game against the Red Stars. She extended that into the national team games. There has been a ton of discussion regarding this. Sometimes just discussing the form of protest, not the issues. Carli Lloyd has mentioned that there have been discussions with teammates about it. Did she ever talk to you about it? Or ask for advice?

CD: You know Pinoe [Megan Rapinoe] is a good friend of mine. We’ve had multiple conversations about it. I did share my views with her on the situation [form of protest]. I told her “look, as a black woman who is playing a sport that is majority white, I love that fact she’s trying to stand up for people’s rights. For something that’s so close to my heart.”  I just further expressed to her that, “No, I can’t be with you in NOT standing for the national anthem.”  Because for me it’s about the fact that people have given their lives for this country. Yes, a country that is NOT perfect. One that has LOTS of flaws. Trust me. I know. I have friends who have been victimized for just for being the way they are and looking the way the look. But to me, the flag and the national anthem doesn’t mean that this country is perfect, for me it means we want to hope for what this country is going to be, what this country could and should be. When I put my hand over my heart, it’s about closing my eyes and thinking about the people who’ve given their lives for me to be living in this world. Yes, it is not perfect and there are rights and methods to express the way you feel about those things. Ultimately, she [Rapinoe] said she understood exactly where I was coming from, and she told me she respected my opinion and she was going to continue doing what she’s been doing. We also have to respect that, I respect her for that and I would never, ever in my life tell her or anyone that you should not be doing this. We live in a country where we have freedom of expression, and I can’t take that away from her.

BS: Exactly, it’s literally a right. I myself have been pretty vocal on some of these issues at Backline Soccer. Whether it’s in my writing, or webcasts. Because I feel similarly–it’s her right to protest–but I also feel it’s necessary to have those types of conversations.

CD: Yes. One hundred percent. Absolutely.

BS: I’ve also mentioned, as you have here, the game is very Anglo. And there is a need to support women of color in this sport. Because at times there can be certain level of weight, or pressure on athletes of color in the game. Do you ever feel that kind of weight?

CD: For those who don’t know, I’ve grown up in a predominately white neighborhood. I’ve been around white people all my life. For me, it never bothered. It was what I was used to ever since I was 2 years old. It was like this is all I know. This is what I know. It really wasn’t until I got older, where I really started to take notice of my environments. I noticed “WOW. I am really, REALLY the only black girl on all of my teams, I’m the only black girl in all of my classes.” Even with me being on the national team, it’s funny, because in my conversations with Pinoe, we also talked about that, how there has maybe been about fourteen black women on the national team. In its history. Those things matter. Especially for me. I know we have a lot of mixed people on the national team. I think something people don’t understand is – that the way you look? It matters. For me? I’m a chocolate girl on the national team. You know, I’m not mixed, I’m not light skinned. I’m not any of that. So my experience on the team is completely different from someone who doesn’t look like me. I hold that very dear to my heart because I want people to know that when they see me on the national team, that they can look at me and still feel like they can make it to where you want to get in life. I don’t think that’s something everyone can understand. People don’t realize that. They might see a mixed girl and say “oh she’s mixed, she counts” and yes, absolutely the do. Mixed girls are technically black. But the reality is that if you don’t look like me? You will be treated differently.

BS: Experiences are different, even within certain racial groups.

CD:  And that’s the colorism that people don’t understand. That’s what ties into bigger things. Like the whole minorities and people of color being on the national stage. So yeah, I do sense a bit of pressure. But it’s not negative pressure. Every day I wake up and want to hold myself in the right way, and carry myself in the right way. To allow people to feel like “look, Crystal Dunn made it. I look like her. If she can make it.  Maybe I could make it too.”