U.S. Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry has received intense criticism and backlash from conservatives for her activism in sports over the weekend. During the U.S. Olympic Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Oregon, where Berry placed third and secured her spot in the Tokyo summer Olympics next month, Berry turned her back on the American flag as the national anthem played. As the song continued, she draped a black T-shirt with the words "Activist Athlete" over her head.
The athlete said she felt caught off guard by the anthem playing as she took her spot on the podium. "I feel like it was a set-up, and they did it on purpose," Berry said, according to The Associated Press. "I was pissed, to be honest." She said she thought the song would play before taking the podium. "They said they were going to play it before we walked out, then they played it when we were out there," Berry said. "But I don’t really want to talk about the anthem because that's not important. The anthem doesn't speak for me. It never has."
It wasn't long before Berry's actions became the subject of right-wing temper tantrums. Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw said during an appearance on Fox & Friends that Berry should be removed from the team. "We don't need any more activist athletes," Crenshaw said, later adding that the "bare minimum requirement" for representing the U.S. in the Olympics is that "you believe in the country." Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also commented on Berry's defiance, writing on Twitter, "Why does the Left hate America?"
Peter Doocy, a White House correspondent for Fox News, took the issue to the White House. "Does President Biden think that is appropriate behavior for someone who hopes to represent Team USA?" he asked on Monday.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki then came to Berry's defense, telling Doocy, "I know [the president is] incredibly proud to be an American and has great respect for the anthem and all that it represents, especially for our men and women serving in uniform all around the world." She went on, "He would also say, of course, that part of that pride in our country means recognizing there are moments where we, as a country, haven't lived up to our highest ideals. And it means respecting the rights of people granted to them in the Constitution to peacefully protest."
This wasn't Berry's first rodeo, either. Berry famously protested during the anthem in the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru when she raised her fist on the podium after winning the hammer throw. At the time, Berry was placed on a one-year probation by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which has since apologized.
Besides Berry's own activism in sports, there is a long history of athletes using their platforms to raise awareness around systemic injustices. In 1967, boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army as a conscientious objector and was stripped of his heavyweight title as a result. A year later, Black U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and silver respectively in the 200-meter final at the Mexico City Olympic Games, raised their fists and bowed their heads during the national anthem.
In more recent years, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick lost his job after he refused to stand for the national anthem in 2016 against racial oppression. That same year, players for WNBA teams the Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty, and Phoenix Mercury started wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts to games in protest of police violence.
It seems that Berry is in good company. "My purpose and my mission is bigger than sports," Berry said, according to the AP. "I'm here to represent those ... who died due to systemic racism. That's the important part. That's why I'm going. That's why I'm here today."
Refinery29 has reached out to Gwen Berry for comment. We will update this story as we know more.