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Rapinoe will be painted as selfish, but her kneel was selfless

In kneeling during "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the U.S. women's national team friendly versus Thailand on Thursday, Megan Rapinoe became the first athlete to continue Colin Kaepernick's protest while wearing a national team uniform.

Before Thursday's match, Rapinoe said she was undecided about kneeling because the act so far hasn't prompted conversation about racial injustice as hoped. So, Rapinoe could have retreated into her own privilege, explaining away a decision not to kneel with some words about patriotism and not achieving her original goal. She would have saved herself from the deluge of condemnations sure to come. Not kneeling certainly would have been the safer option.

Instead, she chose solidarity over safety and took a knee.

The pushback to Kaepernick, Rapinoe and the other players kneeling during the national anthem has been fraught with cries of how divisive the protest is, with disagreements about the method and timing, and with calls to place individual beliefs aside. All of those complaints have to do with the method of the protest instead of what really matters: the fact that racial inequality is rampant in this country.

In Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday (where the U.S. women played their match), 13-year-old Tyre King was shot and killed by police. His death is still under investigation, and we don't know all the details, but his name will forever be mentioned with Michael Brown, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Rekia Boyd, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Natasha McKenna, Janisha Fonville, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice and so many more as black people who have died at the hands of the police in recent years.

This is what Kaepernick and Rapinoe are fighting against. This is about lives and about emphatically stating that black lives are worth just as much white ones. Instead of criticizing Rapinoe for exercising her right to protest, perhaps we should ask this question: Why she is the only white professional athlete to kneel so far? Because the silence from white athletes is deafening.

The Seattle Seahawks and Kansas City Chiefs players locking arms in unity is the closest a white NFL player has come to joining the protests. But there is no risk or objection in linking arms -- fundamentally, there is no protest, and that is the point. It's a cop-out.

Each time a player of color takes a knee or raises a fist, they put themselves and their livelihoods at risk. Brandon Marshall, a linebacker with the Denver Broncos, lost two endorsements following his kneel before the season opener at Mile High Stadium. Hiding behind linked arms and team statements shields players from backlash -- but also from taking a stance.

Compare the linked arms to the actions taken by white members of the WNBA following shootings in Dallas in July. Alongside her Lynx teammates, Lindsay Whalen wore a T-shirt supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and Dallas Police; Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart showed solidarity by also wearing black T-shirts. These players openly raised awareness of police brutality against the black community, much like Rapinoe is doing for Kaepernick now, in the absence of support from his own teammates.

The fact that the examples of support come from women point to the fact that this conversation is rooted in an understanding of marginalization in this country. Many women have experienced discrimination. For Rapinoe, as a member of the LGBT community, it's magnified. Anyone who is not a white, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied man has had to fight for their rights and dignity in this country.

These are hard, uncomfortable conversations. That's why so many are deflecting the issue at hand in their criticism of the protests. Rapinoe will probably be painted as ungrateful, because playing for the national team is a "privilege and an honor," as U.S. Soccer said in a statement afterwards. For Rapinoe, however, it's clear that privilege can and should be risked -- and possibly sacrificed -- for a cause greater than herself.

Rapinoe's choice was one of selflessness, though critics will say she put herself before the team. That is a false dichotomy. The issue of equality and the value placed (or not placed) on the lives of black and brown people transcends sport. And if she is punished for this action, she may well have placed those lives above her own livelihood.

That is the very definition of sacrifice.