The day before the U.S. women’s soccer team took on France in a World Cup quarterfinal, President Donald Trump attacked his nation’s captain on Twitter. Trump had taken umbrage at a video that showed Megan Rapinoe, a purple-haired winger and the team’s co-captain, saying that she would not be “going to the f—ing White House” should the United States win its fourth World Cup later this month. Because of the remarks, Trump accused Rapinoe of showing “disrespect” to the country, the White House and even the American flag. The president, who is hardly bashful about his own imagined successes, also lectured Rapinoe on “finishing the job” before deciding whether to turn down a triumphal White House visit. (For good measure, he said he would invite the women’s team, even in defeat.)
“I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House, with the exception of the expletive. My mom will be very upset about that,” Rapinoe said. She added that she would “encourage” her teammates to decide for themselves whether it’s worth being “co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and doesn’t fight for same things that we fight for.” From all accounts, her teammates are fully behind her.
Then Rapinoe, 33, let her feet do the talking, scoring two goals that led the United States to victory over the tournament’s hosts and to a Tuesday semifinal against England – which the U.S. won 2-1. Then she told reporters that she was not backing down from her stance.
Jill Ellis, the national team’s coach, even suggested that Trump’s scolding added fuel to Rapinoe’s fire. “You can hear it in her comments and how she presents herself. She’s a very experienced, eloquent person,” said Ellis. “I would … point to the performance tonight, and I’d say, if anything, this stuff just bounces off her; I think it even pushes her forward.”
The women’s game has taken significant strides in recent years, but it’s still in the shadow of men’s soccer, which commands far greater attention and resources. (Of course, within the women’s game, the discrepancies between the support U.S. and European athletes receive and that on offer for women from poorer countries are vast, too.) The best male players are global icons with lucrative sponsorship deals and huge entourages of public relations managers and brand representatives. Superstars such as Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo may appear on billboards in every corner of the planet, but their public utterances are almost always dull and safe.
That’s why Rapinoe, an undisputed champion of her sport who plays for Reign FC, stands apart. She came out in 2012 as a gay athlete. She also became the first white professional athlete in the United States to support former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racism and police brutality. At a game in 2016, she followed Kaepernick’s lead and knelt during the rendition of the national anthem. It’s a protest that spooked U.S. soccer authorities, which later mandated standing during the anthem. Rapinoe obliged, but she remains tight-lipped as it’s performed, her silence representing another act of dissent. In May, she told reporters that she sees herself as a “walking protest when it comes to the Trump administration,” whose positions on LGBTQ rights and immigration she rejects. While she scoffed at the idea of visiting Trump, she accepted an invite to the House of Representatives from leftist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
“This is who Rapinoe is, a walking example of intersectionality — not one aspect of her identity defines her,” Amy Bass wrote for CNN. “She is an outspoken LGBTQ+ advocate. An outspoken advocate for racial justice and gender equity. That doesn’t change the moment she dons the uniform and takes to the pitch.”
In fact, it seems to define her. Franklin Foer, a journalist for the Atlantic and a soccer aficionado, branded Rapinoe the Muhammad Ali of her generation. “Like her pugilistic forerunner, with whom she shares sly humor and irresistible swagger, the star player on the U.S. women’s national soccer team has evolved into a hero of resistance,” Foer wrote. “Through her example, Rapinoe has instructed the world on how to play soccer and how to dissent. Her genius is that her political commitments, her public persona, and her playing style are one and the same. In every realm, she is fearlessly open, outrageously joyous, and unabashedly true to herself.”
Rapinoe’s support for Kaepernick probably shadowed Trump’s reaction to her last week. In a bid to stir his base, the president has whipped up an inordinate amount of fuss about a black player protesting during the national anthem. Trump pointed in his tweets to his administration’s efforts to achieve criminal justice change and lower black unemployment. Other Trump supporters bashed the U.S. forward’s insistence on publicizing her politics while representing her country.
Yet Rapinoe is hardly the first athlete to use her platform for her beliefs. “There are those who rebuke Rapinoe, arguing sports and politics shouldn’t mix, but the two have always been inextricable. For better or worse, there are few bigger stages than an international sporting event to make a political statement,” wrote New York Times sports columnist Jere Longman. “That has especially held true at the Olympics, from the Black Power salutes of the Mexico City Games; to the 1972 massacre of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists in Munich, Germany; to the United States boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.”
For Rapinoe and the U.S. women’s team, the battle off the field is not just about Trump. Before the start of the tournament, Rapinoe and her colleagues lodged a class-action gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, arguing that they receive inferior wages and investment in their game despite doing similar work and commanding possibly an even greater television audience.
“They play the game as a form of incursion, as a battle for female sovereignty, and so the stakes have always been higher for them than just the final score,” wrote Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins. “This creates chronic pressure to perform at the highest level, and they deal with and even welcome that pressure as a valuable trial in its own right.” At the head of the pack in this fight is none other than Rapinoe.