It was inevitable that the 2019 Women’s World Cup would become Megan Rapinoe’s moment.
Months before the tournament began in June, a reporter from Eight by Eight magazine pointed the camera at the U.S. soccer star and asked the brash, outspoken forward ― who’d called President Donald Trump a “misogynist” and a “racist” and spent the last three years kneeling during the national anthem ― if she’d engage in the customary White House visit should the American women win their fourth World Cup title.
“I’m not going to the fucking White House,” Rapinoe said, adding that she and her teammates, the ones fighting for equal pay, probably wouldn’t even be invited.
When her comment resurfaced last month, Trump responded on Twitter, and Rapinoe answered with two more goals in a vital quarterfinal victory over France, it made her a hero for those who saw in the U.S. women’s national team a perfect counter to the right-wing president.
All this was tailor-made for the current political and sporting moment. For all her accomplishments on the field ― a World Cup title and one Olympic gold medal; 49 goals on the international stage, including five at this World Cup ― it was only natural that a statement made off the field finally turned Rapinoe into a megastar in American minds.
As tempting as it is to paint her World Cup performance as a specific rebuke to Trump, though, that’s an overly simplistic view. Rapinoe’s resistance began well before the current president took office, and the same brash confidence and refusal to back down that she has shown in France has defined her entire career with the USWNT.
The opponent has hardly mattered: Whether it’s the U.S. Soccer Federation, FIFA or Donald Trump, Rapinoe has used the World Cup and the American women’s success as a platform in a way that few other athletes have. And she has repeatedly made it clear that her causes extend well beyond the world of soccer.
Rapinoe made her World Cup debut in 2011, with her signature platinum blond hair and a whirling, unbound style of play. On the field, she delivered the last-ditch assist that saved the Americans from their worst-ever World Cup finish. A year later, she came out as gay ― a move that made her one of the most prominent openly lesbian athletes in a sports world where rampant homophobia still kept many athletes in the closet.
“Our team in general is in a position where people look up to us and kids look up to us,” Rapinoe said in 2012. “I embrace that and I think I have a huge LGBT following. I think it’s pretty cool, the opportunity that I have, especially in sports. There’s really not that many out athletes. It’s important to be out and to live my life that way.”
After the U.S. women won the 2015 World Cup in Canada, she was one of five players who filed a complaint against U.S. Soccer arguing that it had violated federal laws requiring equal pay for equal work.
“We, as a team, have a keen understanding of our platform and this issue of women’s equality, and we love shouldering that load,” Rapinoe said in 2016.
That year, she became the first prominent white athlete to begin protesting during the national anthem, a move she said was meant to show solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice in the United States.
“I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street. But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache,” Rapinoe wrote for The Players Tribune in 2016.
“I have chosen to kneel because in the time it has taken me to write this article, many more Americans have been lost to senseless violence,” she continued. “I have chosen to kneel because not two miles from my hotel in Columbus, Ohio, on the night before our USWNT match against Thailand, a 13-year-old boy named Tyre King was fatally shot by a police officer. I have chosen to kneel because I simply cannot stand for the kind of oppression this country is allowing against its own people. I have chosen to kneel because, in the words of Emma Lazarus, ‘Until we are all free, we are none of us free.’”
All of those efforts have coalesced in France, where Rapinoe has remained outspoken even as she and her team chase a record fourth World Cup title for the U.S. women. She showed up with her hair dyed pink and continued her calls for LGBTQ equality before the tournament began. When U.S. Soccer changed its rules to require players to stand for the anthem, she pursued her protest for racial equality by standing silently and refusing to sing. She and her teammates have carried on the equal pay dispute throughout the World Cup. As FIFA’s investments in women’s soccer have continued to lag far behind what it puts into the men’s game, Rapinoe has suggested that perhaps it’s time for women to break away and form their own federation.
And then there is Trump. Even if Rapinoe’s protests began before he took office, they have culminated in this moment because she has unapologetically merged the separate fights against him and taken the struggle to one of sport’s biggest stages. Rapinoe, perhaps even more than many of Trump’s official political opponents, has made the argument that the battles for racial, gender and economic equality are inextricably linked, in international soccer and in America as a whole, and that they extend far beyond the president himself, to the very core of American identity.
“I’m particularly and uniquely and very deeply American,” Rapinoe said this week, ahead of the United States’ meeting with the Netherlands in Sunday’s World Cup final. “If we want to talk about the ideals that we stand for — the songs and the anthem, what we were founded on — I think I’m extremely American.”
“For detractors, I would have them look hard into what I’m saying and the actions that I’m doing. Maybe you don’t agree with every single way that I do it, and that can be discussed,” she continued. “I know that I’m not perfect, but I think that I stand for honesty and for truth and for wanting to have the conversation and for looking at the country honestly and saying, ‘Yes, we are a great country, and there’s many things that are so amazing.’ But also that doesn’t mean we can’t get better.”