Yesterday, The New York Times Magazine released a far-ranging interview with soccer star Megan Rapinoe. In it, America’s recently anointed meme queen, winner of the 2019 World Cup Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards (for her performance as top goal-scorer and best player of the Cup, respectively) and partner of fellow soccer star Sue Bird spoke at length about her career and her view of the platform she enjoys—and uses to great effect—in the weeks after Team USA’s dominating victory.
Rapinoe’s clear and unequivocal responses to the Times, though, offer great insight into the inconsistent ways Americans expect sports to avoid politics or reflect existing political expectations. She just might shift those expectations, and upset some erroneous assumptions, for good.
Sports as a “Nonpolitical Oasis?” Megan Rapinoe: “Yeah, I Don’t [Expletive] With That Concept at All.”
Rapinoe striking her famed, triumphant pose over the SI cover. / Image via Instagram (@mrapinoe)
Before turning to Rapinoe’s political and social advocacy, it’s worth reiterating just how extraordinary the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) has been, both in the most-recent tournament and historically.
While their male counterparts, on the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT), have won 77 games across 21 World Cup tournaments (of which they appeared in nine, with a three-decade drought from 1954 to 1986 and the ignominious absence from 2018’s Cup), American women have won 40 games – but appeared in every Women’s Cup held to date. The women have vastly outscored the men, with 138 goals to 38 goals allowed across all tournaments (a ratio above 4-to-1) to the men’s 266 goals to 181 goals allowed (a ratio below 2-to-1).
TL;DR, America’s women out-score the men by wide margins at every World Cup. And they often do so with record-breaking margins, as in their opening 13-0 win over Thailand.
Individual USWNT players also have ranked consistently among all-time greats: Abby Wambach’s career average of three goals per World Cup tournament appearance (2003, 2007, 2011, 2015) places her above all but Landon Donovan’s performances for the men; goalkeeper Briana Scurry (active 1995-2007) has the highest number of clean sheets (meaning a shutout, where the goalkeeper deprives opponents of any goals throughout a game) in Women’s World Cup history, and she ties two men for the all-time, all-gender record of 10 in one Cup (Peter Shilton, England, active 1982-1990 and Fabien Barthez, France, active 1998-2010).
The soccer player who has played more total minutes than any other, of any gender? That would be America’s own Kristine Lilly (active 1991-2007), who played 2,537 total career minutes in World Cup Games – a full five and one-third hours more than the second-place player, Italy’s Pablo Maldini, who appeared in Men’s World Cup tournaments from 1990-2002.
All of this is to say Megan Rapinoe is an exceptional athletic talent, one who stood out in this year’s tournament even among a long lineage of exceptional American players, including many of her peers in 2019. As NJ.com summarized her World Cup final performance in a 2-0 victory over The Netherlands:
Two days past her 34th birthday, Rapinoe slotted the ball past goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal for her 50th international goal, her sixth of the tournament to win the Golden Ball as scoring leader. The oldest player to score in a Women’s World Cup final, she struck a familiar victorious pose with arms outstretched.
But it’s Rapinoe’s work—and dogged advocacy—off the field which garnered at least as much attention throughout 2019’s Cup and in the wake of her career-defining performance.
Rapinoe Merely Reclaims Her Agency In An Already Politicized Sport Context
Rapinoe first grabbed headlines for joining former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s lead, kneeling in protest of systemic racism during the National Anthem before games. (Because of U.S. Soccer rules, Rapinoe later was forced to stand, but opted to keep her arms to her sides in silence during subsequent events.) Her blunt rejection of a hypothetical invitation to the White House and her vocal support for equal pay, including the ongoing lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation that inspired Cup crowds to chant “equal pay!” following the American victory, are just two examples.
Rapinoe meeting then-Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton in 2016. / Image via Instagram (@mrapinoe)
In that context, interviewers and journalists repeatedly have asked Rapinoe about her politics and her so-called politicization of sports. The New York Times Magazine profile took a while to get around to the subject, but framed it directly; Rapinoe’s response, of course, was equally candid:
[NYT] Do you have any sympathy for the idea that sports should be a nonpolitical oasis?
[Rapinoe] I don’t understand that argument at all. You want us to be role models for your kids. You want us to endorse your products. You parade us around. It’s like, we’re not just here to sit in the glass case for you to look at. That’s not how this is going to go. Yeah, I don’t [expletive] with that concept at all.
Here, Rapinoe points out what isn’t always obvious yet undeniable: to perform at the highest levels in any sport, an athlete must comport themselves to an existing—and highly political—order within it. There are expectations of respectability (the role model status foisted on athletes, especially women); there are demands for endorsements (from the brands, yes, but also to ensure players can, you know, play with proper gear they may not otherwise be able to afford); there are requirements of fealty and obedience, even when the authorities make dubious decisions (such as the NFL’s silencing of CTE studies showing massive brain damage to virtually all players, or the abovementioned case of U.S. Soccer demanding an end to Rapinoe’s on-field protests).
Image via Instagram (@mrapinoe).
In other words, to play at the highest level is to already exist in a particular political—and politicized—context. Rapinoe merely joins her forebears, in soccer and countless other sports, as an agent of change, using her influence to shift the terms of those debates and effect positive changes in broader society. Sadly, her advocacy echoes many earlier cases of backlash as well, irrespective of the ways history reframed athlete-activists after the fact.
Now-icons here in America were despised by many for their political stances. Muhammad Ali’s pro-peace activities and Muslim faith provide the paradigmatic examples from more than a half-century ago. Ali’s forebear, heavyweight Joe Louis, had fought against Germany’s Max Schmeling more than once, matchups between a Black American and a favored son of Nazi Germany that hardly need much explanation for their political resonance.
Conversely, issues of violence and especially violence against women are politicized in contemporary boxing competitions by being largely ignored. Mike Tyson has a long list of domestic violence, sexual assault and physical abuse allegations from numerous women dating back decades, many of which date to his peak years as a boxer. These problems aren’t relegated to the 1980s and 90s either, as more-recently retired boxer Floyd Mayweather has faced numerous allegations as well, ones he hasn’t exactly provided strong defenses against.
The powers that be in boxing have allowed men like Tyson and Mayweather to keep fighting (and, in the latter case, earning vast sums of money) despite credible allegations and even convictions. Tyson has appeared in both blockbuster films and a featured slot on Madonna’s “Rebel Heart” in 2015, no less. Continuing to accept—and highly compensate—such men is a political choice, too.
Then there are the rehabilitated athletes of recent vintage. As the masterful “You’re Wrong About…” podcast recently argued, elite figure skater and controversy magnet Tonya Harding had a full career defined by political schisms and subtexts, all of which society has yet to confront meaningfully.
From working-class roots to an inability to pass for upper-class—like, say, Nancy Kerrigan, herself a product of a working-class upbringing—Tonya Harding was an outsider from her earliest competitions in the U.S. skating hierarchy. Comments on her “trashy” attire on the ice were more than rude. As “You’re Wrong About…” explained, Harding was routinely marked down for her costumes in her actual “artistry” scores, being penalized in competition for her socioeconomic status.
(As Kristi Yamaguchi, meanwhile, became an icon of Asian-American representation in the sport, pressure mounted from her early teens in an already unforgiving field. Michelle Kwan has denied feeling the same kinds of pressures as a “pioneer” in part because of Yamaguchi’s earlier reign. Race, class and social graces remain a potent, problematic mixture in skating and elsewhere.)
To take just one more outside example, elite women’s tennis players—exemplified by Venus and Serena Williams, arguably the greatest sibling-athletes in history—have offered a frequent target for politicizing sports, often with no regard to the players’ own political or personal desires. Serena, arguably the most-accomplished U.S. tennis player in history, has fielded countless sexist and racist questions throughout her exemplary career, but only when she began pushing back meaningfully did she become branded as the agent of her own “politicization.”
Serena Williams this past January at the Australian Open. / Image via Instagram (@serenawilliams)
Finally, Rapinoe’s forebears in U.S. women’s soccer can probably relate to the present mega-star’s commentary – and grueling examination under the media microscope. Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach, among the world’s most-famous athletes at their peaks, faced gendered stereotyping and the politicization of their bodies, their sexualities, their very being throughout and after their careers.
Rapinoe’s advocacy on issues relating to racial justice, her leadership as an out athlete and her condemnation of unjustifiable pay inequality are just a few of the ways in which the soccer star has flipped the script, reclaiming athletes’ agency over the built-in politics of sport. Whether going head-to-head with Dutch players on the pitch or with the President of the United States, Rapinoe can more than hold her own. She demands, and deserves, respect.
Rapinoe, describing the “choice to participate in the political discourse” upon kneeling in protest back in 2016, told the Times that she feels “very comfortable talking about politics” and that she “understood the gravity of what was happening.” She also knows her worth and that of her teammates, as well as the riskiness in putting herself forward as an advocate for equality, explaining:
The other problem is that there’s basically 23 women in the country that make a living off soccer, and the thought of losing that is scary. So that’s the difficult part: trying to get everybody on board and forcing the federation to give us what we’re worth.
Even if her level of fame owes a bit to pushing boundaries, Rapinoe doesn’t lose sight of the big picture and never disregards the consequences of her actions for her peers or future generations.
The entire conceit of the Olympic Games is politics by other means – sports competitions as stand-ins for national ambitions and nationalist iconography. To put a fine point on it, sports are inseparable from their political contexts and they always have been.
That is not a controversial point. Nor should Rapinoe’s use of her platform to demand sports leaders—and others throughout society—do better. She is simply the latest in a long line of powerful, forward-looking voices. And all of us are indebted to her, as will be the next generations’ athletes of all genders, all sexualities, all sports, for decades to come.
Again, be sure to check out Megan Rapinoe’s full interview with The New York Times Magazine here.
This essay is the opinion of one of the contributing writers of Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of other writers or the magazine.