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Soccer team plays U.S. national anthem early to prevent player protest

U.S. women's soccer team midfielder Megan Rapinoe speaks to the media during a Nike unveiling event in New York, March 17, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

(Reuters) - The Washington Spirit women’s soccer team on Wednesday played the U.S. national anthem while players were still in their locker rooms, preventing visiting star Megan Rapinoe from continuing her protest for social equality.

Rapinoe knelt during “The Star Spangled Banner” before her game on Sunday in Chicago and vowed to continue to do so in support of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who did not stand for the song before his NFL team’s last two pre season games to protest against racial injustice and police brutality.

Many Americans saw his gesture as a sign of disrespect to the flag and criticism was widespread, but Kaepernick has also been supported by some fellow athletes.

“We decided to play the anthem in our stadium ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent,” the Spirit said in a statement.

Rapinoe, whose team, the Seattle Reign, were in the Washington D.C.-area to play the Spirit, said that she was “saddened” by the team’s decision not to play the anthem with players on the field, according to the Washington Post.

On Sunday, Rapinoe said that as a gay American, she understood what it was like to “look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties” and that she planed to continue to kneel in order to spur conversation about social injustices.

“We respectfully disagree with her method of hijacking our organization’s event to draw attention to what is ultimately a personal - albeit worthy - cause,” said the Spirit, a National Women’s Soccer League team owned by Bill Lynch.

Rapinoe objected to the team’s use of the word “hijack,” days before the 15th anniversary of September 11 attacks.

“It was incredibly distasteful, four days before one of the worst tragedies in our country, to say I tried to hijack this event,” Rapinoe said after the game, according to The Washington Post.

Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Toby Chopra