Megan Rapinoe touched down at Sea-Tac Airport late Wednesday night with a coveted trinket. The pen President Joe Biden used hours earlier to sign a proclamation of it being “National Equal Pay Day 2021” was stuffed in her travel backpack.
“The pens always seem important,” said Rapinoe, an OL Reign winger and captain of the U.S. women’s national team.
She was joined by U.S. teammate and NWSL rival Margaret “Midge” Purce at the ceremony as Rapinoe also testified before Congress about gender discrimination.
The national women’s team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) in March 2019, seeking pay equity with the men’s national team. The women — a total of 50 dating to 2015 — are seeking more than $66 million in damages. A federal judge threw out the equal-pay claim but the players are appealing.
“We hear about equal pay or we hear about homophobia, misogyny, transphobia and all these things. But that’s someone,” Rapinoe said. “That’s a human being on the other end of that. For us (Rapinoe and Purce) to be able to go and participate and put our face to it and our words to it and our experience to it was incredible. (The pen is) a little memento, other than the pictures and everything we have, for me to kind of keep and hold dear.”
Thursday, Rapinoe drove from her Queen Anne home to Cheney Stadium in Tacoma to do a job that pays her and her teammates less than their male counterparts, including the Sounders.
Rapinoe returns to the Reign following a 16-month absence after opting out of the s NWSL season last year. And while the pen she received will join a figurative trophy case that includes two FIFA World Cup titles, an Olympic gold medal, Golden Boot, and NCAA championship, she has yet to win an NWSL championship.
The 2019 FIFA women’s player of the year has her eyes set on changing that this season.
“Knowing what it feels like to lose in a final and have that sort of gutted feeling, it’s terrible,” Rapinoe said during a phone interview Friday. “So, I always want to win championships and win trophies. That’s the reason I play and the ultimate goal in playing sport. … I’m looking forward to trying that again this year.”
Rapinoe, who helped the Reign win the 2014 and 2015 NWSL Shield for best regular-season record, last played for the Reign in a semifinal defeat against eventual NWSL champion North Carolina Courage in October 2019.
Soccer became secondary in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic momentarily shut down all sports. Rapinoe was with her USWNT, wearing her jersey inside-out in protest of USSF as the team won the SheBelieves Cup final against Japan at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
“We were thinking out loud that we can’t believe we have fans in the stadium,” Rapinoe said of the 19,096 in attendance. She had a goal and assist in the match, stating Washington was at the forefront of her mind since it was the epicenter of the virus at that time.
“We pretty much knew after leaving that tournament that we were not going to be in normal life,” Rapinoe said. “I even said to people ‘Go wherever you want to go and be for a long time. If that’s not to your NWSL market and you want to go home or wherever it is, you should go there instead of back to where you’re supposed to go.’”
Rapinoe headed to Connecticut with fiancé Sue Bird, a four-time WNBA champion and gold medalist. The couple strictly followed CDC and local government health guidelines to guard against the disease, while Rapinoe opted out of all soccer competitions and trainings.
“ (Opting out was) difficult in terms of not being able to be there with my team and not being able to participate,” said Rapinoe, who’s still judicious in her activity amid the pandemic. “I didn’t feel comfortable at all. … I took that time to work on other things physically and be able to come back for 2021 where I feel like I know a lot more about how to keep myself safe. We learned a lot about bubbling our secure environments and how to keep people safe in those environments.”
But, while she was away from the pitch in 2020, Rapinoe didn’t disappear. She used the time away from sports to promote social justice, encourage voter turnout, fight for gender equality and civil rights for the LGBTQIA+ community.
And there was no better year for Rapinoe to use her megawatt platform than 2020. She was a host for the ESPYs with Bird and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in June and also was part of the #ShareTheMicNow campaign in June, where white women with star power such as Rapinoe turned their social media accounts over to Black women to amplify their voices. Rapinoe also filmed an HBO special that was released in August where she and a panel that included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dug into social injustices and the presidential election.
In October, Rapinoe witnessed Bird win her fourth title, and the couple got engaged later that month. November was marked by more campaigning for people to vote and the release of her memoir, “One Life.” In January, Rapinoe was among the activists helping to push Georgia blue in the Senate runoff. And earlier this month, Rapinoe joined Bird to volunteer at a vaccination site at Lumen Field followed by the trip to the White House.
While the Reign will begin its season April 16 at Cheney Stadium against the defending champion Houston Dash, Rapinoe isn’t expected make her return to NWSL action until April 21 for the Cascadia derby against the Portland Thorns at Providence Park.
But while she has returned to sports, the pandemic still weighs on Rapinoe.
“It’s almost like the degree of how terrible it is, is not really fully hitting us,” Rapinoe said of the approximately 549,000 COVID-19 deaths in America. “It’s become a way of life to have all of these people getting COVID, to have all of these people dying. To have the devastation that we have has almost become normal.”
It’s another issue she hopes to fight — this time from the soccer field.
“Last year, I was completely unessential in pretty much every way,” Rapinoe said. “It was like how can I be a contributing member in this society? I’m going to stay home and then I’m going to try to provide some fun, light entertainment for some people whether it’s ‘A Touch More’ (Instagram Live with Bird) or it’s talk to politicians about things that I was struggling to understand and I know other people were.
“I like to do whatever I can to help (and now) playing will be extremely impactful.”
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