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This Miss America contestant's answer to NFL kneeling question scores her early win

Miss Virginia Emili McPhail said NFL players kneeling "is a right you have. But it's also not about kneeling; it is absolutely about police brutality."
Image: Emili McPhail
Miss America 2015, Kira Kazantsev, left, Miss Virginia, Emili McPhail and Miss America 2018, Cara Mund. Donald Kravitz / Getty Images

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — A question about the propriety of NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem helped select one of Thursday's preliminary winners in the Miss America competition.

Miss Virginia Emili McPhail was asked what advice she would give to players about whether to stand or kneel for the anthem.

She said not standing during the anthem "is a right you have. But it's also not about kneeling; it is absolutely about police brutality."

Speaking with reporters afterward, McPhail was asked if she was worried about alienating people who feel differently about the anthem protests, an issue that has deeply divided the country. Some NFL players say they kneel during the anthem to protest societal injustices and to push for change, but opponents, including President Donald Trump, consider the gesture disrespectful.

"You're entitled to your own opinion, but I stood up for what I believed was right," McPhail said.

In the talent competition, Miss Louisiana Holli' Conway won for a vocal performance, singing "I Believe."

"It is something that would push me through when I had bad days," she said.

The second night of preliminary competition happened hours after signs appeared around Atlantic City on Thursday criticizing Gretchen Carlson, the chairwoman of the Miss America Organization, as "so fake" and a "bully."

Hung from traffic lights and glued to a utility box, signs appeared Thursday morning. They turned up at bus stops, as well. No one had taken responsibility for putting them up.

They reference claims from the outgoing Miss America, Cara Mund, who said that Carlson and CEO Regina Hopper bullied and silenced her during her reign, which ends Sunday.

Carlson, the former Fox News host and a former Miss America, said she had no comment. Both she and Hopper have repeatedly denied bullying Mund.

The signs appear to parody Carlson's book "Be Fierce." They include the same photo of her that appears on her book cover, but with the words "So Fake" and "private bully, public liar."

In addition, someone hung a pageant sash on the Miss America statue just outside Boardwalk Hall, where the competition takes place, that reads "Gretchen Sucks."

This year's pageant is taking place amid a revolt by state organizations, most of which want Carlson and Hopper to resign; 46 of the 51 groups (the District of Columbia is included) have signed letters seeking their resignation.

They are unhappy with the way the decision to eliminate the swimsuit competition from the pageant was reached, among other issues.

Contestants from Florida and Wisconsin picked up wins Wednesday in the first night of preliminary competition.

Miss Florida Taylor Tyson won the talent competition for a piano rendition of "Mephisto's Waltz" by Lizst.

Miss Wisconsin Tianna Vanderhei won the onstage interview competition for her comments on how higher education should be more affordable and more widely accessible.

Scholarships totaling nearly $506,000 will be awarded, including $50,000 for the new Miss America; $25,000 for the first runner-up; $20,000 for the second runner-up; $15,000 for the third runner-up, and $10,000 for the fourth runner up.

The third and final night of preliminaries will be held Friday.

The next Miss America will be crowned Sunday night in Atlantic City.