The Mighty Megan Rapinoe
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because greatness has never introduced itself so unabashedly.
By Eugene S. Robinson
Whether you were planning to join us in New York’s Central Park, or are enjoying OZY from across the globe, we still want you to celebrate the talent and bold ideas we had in our lineup — and that make our annual festival of ideas so powerful.
U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe scares the bejesus out of a lot of people, and she couldn’t care less. She’s taken on World Cup opponents as well as the White House in recent weeks, clearly unafraid to speak her mind to power.
“She really doesn’t care,” laughs Shaun Singletary, a former soccer coach and player. “Stars like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain were very aware of the impact they had and were almost molds of your traditional cookie-cutter, well-behaved athlete. Rapinoe doesn’t care what people think about her and seems to have fully embraced being who she is.”
Rapinoe, 34, is an out-and-out baller. The World Cup-winning captain’s free-flowing style of play — complete with cheeky touches, back heels and flicks — is all part of the package. She talks smack and routinely backs it up; the world witnessed as she scored the deciding goals in three of her side’s final four matches in France, earning the Golden Boot as the World Cup’s top scorer and the Golden Ball as the best overall player, while helping the U.S. become only the third country to successfully defend a World Cup, men’s or women’s, since World War II.
If you have ever spent any time around sports stars of any variety, you know they’re a breed apart. Not because of the total dedication it takes to get well beyond proficient at just about anything, though that helps. Not by becoming so much better than everyone else that they start getting paid for it. No, that’s entry-level good. For pro-level greatness? You need to bring to bear a scorched-earth angle of attack on not just the sport but life itself.
Soccer has been her life’s obsession since she was 3, inspired by an older brother who subsequently battled drug addiction and incarceration. That, too, is part of the narrative the world is seeing today.
After beating Thailand in their first World Cup match on June 11 — final score 13-0 — the thumping brought the Thai team to tears, and charges were leveled against the U.S. team for poor sportsmanship. For celebrating. After each goal scored. The media came at the whole squad — telling them they had to be bigger, to which Rapinoe said: “I understand it, in part, but honestly — first of all, this is the World Cup,” she told Fox Sports. So, “if anyone wants to come at our team for not doing the right thing, not playing the right way, not being the right ambassador for the sport, they can come at us because I think our only crime was an explosion of joy last night.”
Rapinoe doesn’t care what people think about her.
Shaun Singletary, former soccer coach and player
No surrender. No retreat. And if you pushed much beyond that, you got pushback that cut right to the heart of what was secretly suspected: Would anyone have asked a men’s team this?
By now the world knows that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is not on her list of stops — as she celebrates America’s most recent World Cup triumph with her teammates. And whether it’s the “Canyon of Heroes” parade in lower Manhattan or the ESPYs in Los Angeles that followed, this team is unified — and happy that their loudest voice belongs to the woman with the purple hair.
“We know we have each other’s backs in there,” head coach Jill Ellis said after Rapinoe’s dustup with President Donald Trump made news. “I think for our players, there is only one purpose, one mission that we’re here. Comments, media, whatever, it’s always been something that I think we can block out pretty easily.”
There’s been a lot of Rapinoe-related fuss to block out, as she’s become a leading figure of social sports advocacy. In 2016 she started kneeling during the national anthem to support former quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police brutality.
And when U.S. Soccer tried to go old-school on her with a defense of the anthem, Rapinoe’s response was swift. And ruthless. “Using this blanketed patriotism as a defense against what the protest actually is,” Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports, “was pretty cowardly.” Rapinoe then said she’d “probably never sing the national anthem again.”
“You know sports fans have gotten used to trash talk,” says Eric Tulppo, a former soccer player and women’s national team superfan. “But straight talk? Well, the real is a little harder to take for some than the fake.” In the end, though, the truest measure remains significance, and Rapinoe is a “great ball player. The U.S. will have a hard time replacing her when she hangs up the studs.”
And when will that be? Rapinoe, who played an instrumental role in the U.S. wins in the 2015 Women’s World Cup and 2012 Olympics, now boasts sponsorship deals with both Nike and Samsung and was the first openly gay woman in this year’s annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. At this point, retirement isn’t even whispered.
In the middle of her team’s fight for equal pay — and for respect across the board — her relentless social advocacy has made her the very definition of a modern athlete, like it or hate it.
“Considering how much time and effort and pride we take in the platform that we have, and using it for good, and for leaving the game in a better place and hopefully the world in a better place,” Rapinoe said at a news conference after the Trump flap, “I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform, or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and fight for the same things we fight for.”
Not every superstar athlete is cut out to be a Megan Rapinoe; it takes guts to put yourself out there like that.
“She’s one of the first women’s players who almost laughs at any flak she receives for her beliefs,” Singletary says. “It also helps that she’s one of the best players in the world.”
Megan Rapinoe is here for it.
In Season 5 of The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast, we explore the history-making 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team and all of the unheralded athletes, policymakers and activists who made their journey possible. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.com, Spotify, Apple, Himalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.