One afternoon in January 2020, Tziarra King walked onto the stage at the National Women’s Soccer League Draft in Baltimore, Maryland. She adjusted the microphone and thanked a long list of people for helping with her career. With that, she became the first-ever North Carolina State University player drafted into the NWSL.
With the eighth pick in the first round, the Utah Royals FC made King’s aspirations to play pro a reality. Onstage, she wore the same smile that usually accompanied her on-field collegiate play with the NC State Wolfpack in Raleigh, where she recorded 48 goals and 19 assists between 2016 and 2019, during which time she also made two appearances on the All-ACC First Team.
Her eagerness to get her rookie season underway in Utah was written all over her face.
A pandemic and a nationwide racial justice movement later, King, who is Black, once again stepped up to the mic this June, at a protest in Salt Lake City. This time, understandably, her tone was different.
She challenged those around her to “stand up with all Black people, not just Black people who can come up here and speak well.”
“I just felt the urge to go up there and say what I had to say,” King told the INDY.
Saying what she has to say has been the theme of the soccer star’s 2020. The 22-year-old has arguably become one of the NWSL’s most active voices when it comes to speaking publicly about racism and discrimination. When she first came across the video of George Floyd’s death, King says she had to look away.
The unfiltered, easily accessible streaming of yet another Black person’s death at the hands of the police was distressing. This, she says, was followed by feelings of exhaustion: The discussions about race had become all-consuming, and she was feeling a bit of loneliness from being in a new city during quarantine.
“You want to step on the field and try to forget about everything going on in the world,” King says. “But there are times when you just can’t do that, and it’s hard to find that balance. There were days when I was like, ‘I don’t really want to be here.’”
In late June, the NWSL became the first U.S. professional league to resume playing since the onset of the pandemic with an eight-team competition in Utah, held inside a bubble.
During her debut game as a pro soccer player, King impressed by scoring her first goal in the last few minutes, bringing the score to a draw. That would be a memorable moment for any athlete, but King says it was second to one that occurred earlier in the afternoon, when she and her teammates took a knee during the National Anthem. In college, King had worried that kneeling would impact her prospects of being drafted. That afternoon, though, amid the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, she knelt.
“It was something I had always felt guilty for—not being able to kneel in solidarity with my community and stand up against injustice that’s been going on in this country,” King says. “So that first opportunity I got the chance to do that, that was really powerful to me. I remember I was shaking when I was kneeling there on the field.”
Tim Santoro, King’s coach at NC State, has been watching from afar. He’s not surprised at the way his former player has become a leading voice in pro soccer.
“I’m more proud of the non-athletic achievements in her life than I am than the athletic—and that’s saying a lot,” Santoro says.
King is adamant about using her platform to speak up, from challenging the “stick to sports” crowd to confronting homophobia and transphobia in sports. She recently appeared in a series featuring prominent Black women athletes on Instagram’s company account.
“It can be exhausting, especially right now, trying to get people to understand your perspective,” King wrote in her featured caption. “Regardless, I wouldn’t change who I am for anything in this world. I love being a Black woman.”
In late August, King had reason to confront racism up-close. Days after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, players from Real Salt Lake—the brother club of Utah Royals FC that plays in Major League Soccer—went on strike from a match. Dell Loy Hansen, who owns both Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals FC, publicly denounced the players’ decision, stating that the action was disrespectful and that he felt like “somebody stabbed him.”
Soon after, King called out Hansen in a viral Twitter thread. “Messages about inclusion and diversity are in complete contradiction with an owner who refuses to understand the relevance of a player strike for racial equality,” she wrote.
Soon after, multiple allegations of racist language came out about Hansen. Under pressure from players like King, Hansen announced plans to sell the team.
“You want to be in a space where you’re supported and you’re being heard and your opinion is valued,” King says, adding that when she looks back on her unusual first season as a pro, she feels hopeful about an athlete’s power to bring about change.
As for how she’ll remember her rookie season?
“I think,” she says, “That it’s going to be a year we can mark down for growth.”
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