PARIS — When she scored the first of her two goals in Friday’s 2-1 victory over France in the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup, on a cunning and elusive free kick, Megan Rapinoe ran to the corner of the field and held her arms aloft.
The gesture was not a mere celebration. It seemed to say, this is all of me. Take me for the bold, complex person that I am: big personality; social activist; champion of equal pay; national anthem protester; presidential critic; lavender-haired soccer star of ruthless and creative purpose.
Out, and out front, Rapinoe has perhaps become the representative athlete of our times — wearing the jersey of a nation that is divided, playing for a team that is not, fearless and unapologetic about demanding excellence from herself and fair and equitable treatment by others.
Many sports teams tend to retreat into a bubble when it comes to difficult topics and moments, to offer bland and insipid “one game at a time” pablum. Not Rapinoe and this United States women’s team. It sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination before the tournament. And once it arrived in France, Rapinoe (on camera) and her teammate Ali Krieger (on Twitter) jousted with President Trump. Krieger already had made news here, by suggesting that the Americans’ depth left the United States not only with the best team in the World Cup, but also with the second-best.
Some may consider their remarks audacious or disrespectful, but a journalist always wants to know what an athlete is truly thinking. Rapinoe and her teammates, then, are refreshingly, wonderfully candid. And Coach Jill Ellis seems uninterested in trying to tamp down any verbal brush fires or worried they will escalate into distracting conflagration. She appears to feel that self-assurance, on the field and off, is a necessary vaccine against wallflower reticence, which could hurt her team — any team — in the most demanding moments.
“You can have all the tactics in the world, but that essence of self-belief, that’s critical,” Ellis said after the United States defeated Spain on Monday, with Rapinoe again delivering both American goals.
Referring to Rapinoe, who will turn 34 on Friday, by her nickname, Ellis added, “Pinoe and other players have lived in these moments. It’s fair to say they actually want those moments. When the game is on the line, you want to feel that this is a changing moment that you’re in. I think that’s part of what they’re really good at in terms of embracing that moment.”
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. 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.
It would be irresponsible not to use her international platform to try to affect change, Rapinoe has often said. She stands in silent protest during the national anthem, declining to sing or put her hand over her heart. She said she would not visit the White House if the United States won its fourth Women’s World Cup, and would encourage her teammates not to go, either.
Her reasoning, she said, is that she did not want the American women’s team’s decades-long fight for equality and inclusivity to be “co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and doesn’t fight for the same things that we fight for.”
Her boldness is nothing new for her, or for members of her team. It can be traced to the mid-1990s among American female soccer stars — a line that extends from players like Julie Foudy to Abby Wambach and now to Rapinoe — players willing to risk criticism in order to demand equitable pay, safe playing conditions and social justice. It was Foudy, for instance, who led the way in urging that the 1999 Women’s World Cup be played in large football stadiums in the United States. The epic final that year, a penalty-shootout victory over China, drew a Women’s World Cup-record crowd of 90,185 to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
“That team laid the foundation for a lot of things,” said Jeffrey Gerson, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who has led a number of panel discussions about the continuing struggle for equality in women’s soccer.
He added: “They also had this sense that they were being watched and on stage and carrying the torch for equality and cultural change for girls and women. This conversation has continued. There’s a spirit that goes along with the team: anything is possible, don’t be limited by the doubts of others.”
If anyone does not appear to be limited by the doubts of others, it is Rapinoe, who told The New York Times Magazine before the World Cup that it was important to buttress her activism with her play on the field. It is what she stresses to her younger teammates.
“Everything is more and better,” she said then. “I want them to understand that it’s better because we earned it. But it’s also better because we won. The most important thing is continuing to win.”