On an overcast evening, with the 2019 Women’s World Cup a day old, Megan Rapinoe and her teammates are exploring the city of Reims, the unofficial capital of France’s Champagne region. Hosting the defending champions’ opening match of the tournament, the northeastern city where French kings were crowned is home to America’s finest soccer players for the next few days.
The footballers, smartly dressed with no team badges on display to hint at their occupations, come to a halt near a tram stop. Huddled and moving in semicircles to the command of a blue dot on a smartphone, the group looks lost. But no one is taking notice.
Locals are patiently waiting for a tram to arrive, unaware that a few steps away are Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, Olympic champions, world champions, household names in their homeland.
With her lavender hair, the flamboyant Rapinoe has been easy to recognize in France. But after the past few days, even the inhabitants of Reims would now probably glance twice if they were to find the 33-year-old in their midst again. Being in the eye of a Twitter storm with the President of the United States tends to increase a person’s profile.
It should come as no surprise that Rapinoe, who has described herself as a “walking protest,” has irked Trump. What is perhaps more startling is that it has taken the US President this long to take notice of America’s World Cup-winning activist. Over the years, the Californian has called him “sexist,” “misogynistic,” “racist” “small-minded” and a “jerk but entertaining.”
But we’re now in the middle of the Women’s World Cup, a tournament in which viewing figures are shattering records across continents, a competition that the United States is favorite to win for the record fourth time, and so the world is paying attention to whatever Rapinoe says. And, of course, when fire is blown in Trump’s direction, he usually reaches for his flamethrower: Twitter.
Last week, the soccer magazine Eight by Eight released a 39-second clip of Rapinoe talking to its reporter during a photo shoot in January.
Asked whether she was excited to go to the White House if her team wins the World Cup, the United States’ co-captain retorts, “Pfft, I’m not going to the f***ing White House.”
Trump responded and needed more than 280 characters to do so. In a series of tweets that were heavy on exclamation marks, the US President told Rapinoe that she should “WIN first before she talks!” and should not disrespect her country or its flag and “Finish the job!”
Rapinoe has since told reporters that she stands by the comments “with the exception of the expletive; my mom would be very upset about that.”
“I don’t think that I would want to go, and 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 doesn’t fight for the same things that we fight for,” she said Thursday.
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It is the word “fight” that encapsulates the fearless midfielder’s approach to life. She isn’t the sort to hold back or shy away from an argument. This is a soccer great, a veteran of the US team who is full of wit, who wants to make a difference. She is true to herself.
Being in a battle with the US President does not seem to weigh heavily on a player who describes herself as carefree and confident. It certainly did not curtail her performance in Friday’s colossal quarterfinal match against France. She was, in her coach’s words, “fantastic,” scoring both goals in a 2-1 win.
But being the focus of attention is not new territory for Rapinoe. This is a player who has been booed by her own fans while representing her country when she knelt during the US national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police brutality.
The midfielder was one of the first white professional athletes to show solidarity with Kaepernick and the first to do so on an international stage, helping turn a ripple of discontent into a wave that swept the country.
“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 in the Players’ Tribune to explain her decision.
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There was outrage. Rapinoe, a player who once sang “Born in the USA” as way of celebrating scoring for her country, had struck a nerve.
But she never felt alone, telling CNN Sport in November that she had the support of her teammates, just as she has this week with Ali Krieger backing her co-captain on social media and coach Jill Ellis saying on Thursday, “we have each other’s backs in there.” Rapinoe herself said she had not destabilized the dressing room before a crucial match.
As “The Star-Spangled Banner” has rung out in French stadiums before USWNT matches, Rapinoe has remained silent. She stands these days because she has been told she has to.
In 2017, US Soccer passed a policy that requires players to stand for the national anthem. Though the World Cup winner has respected the bylaw, her beliefs have not changed.
In the interview with CNN last year, the midfielder said she had no regrets about taking the knee and would do it again “in a heartbeat,” going on to describe America as a country that “needs to confront its issues more honestly.”
The American, an accumulator of 157 international caps, is an engaging interviewee. She answers whatever questions come her way, and her smile can put you at ease. She is eloquent and honest and knows she can make an impact through actions and words. “I’m very aware of our platform as a team and how much impact that it has,” she said Thursday.
She speaks out on topics when other sports stars remain tight-lipped because, as a woman in sport, she has had to fight throughout her career.
“Having a conversation about it no matter how it goes is better than not having it,” she told CNN of the period in which she took the knee, which captures the attitude of a player who came out as gay after a series of brilliant performances during the 2011 Women’s World Cup raised her profile. It was a Rapinoe cross that led to the Abby Wambach goal in the quarterfinal against Brazil, saving the US from elimination.
There were concerns about the consequences of coming out, about endorsements disappearing and the hate that could follow, but Rapinoe wanted to be an example. It was time to be fearlessly open. The player and her girlfriend, Sue Bird of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, were the first openly gay couple to appear on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue.
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Raised in the conservative area of Palo Cedro to a Christian family, Rapinoe is one of six siblings and a twin. She told reporters this week that she comes from a strong family and that the people whom she is surrounded by have helped her feel “empowered and emboldened.”
But it is the life of Brian Rapinoe, the brother she worshiped as a child, who spent eight of his 16 years in prison in solitary confinement and is now part of San Diego’s Male Community Reentry Program, who has had the greatest impact on Rapinoe the social campaigner.
“He probably just needed more treatment or a rehabilitation facility, rather than being put in maximum-security prison for his offenses,” she said Thursday when asked about her older brother, who got hooked on drugs as a teenager.
“It gave me a broader perspective on the criminal justice system, the people in there. They’re your brothers, your friends and brothers. In a large way, especially as I’ve gotten older, that shaped my view on that in particular, but obviously that has a lot of ramification outside of just drug abuse.”
The Californian has said that gay rights, equal pay and racial inequality are intertwined. “If we’re still having the argument ‘is there racism? Is there sexism?’ – those things exist. We know they exist,” Rapinoe has told CNN. “Insofar as we argue whether they exist, we’re wasting time on the issue. I just wish we would just confront them more honestly, so we can get onto the solutions.”
But the wheels of progress turn slowly, which is why the midfielder, likely to be competing at her last World Cup, continues to be vocal and at the forefront for equality.
Rapinoe was one of five players whose names were on the lawsuit filed against US soccer’s governing body in 2016 alleging wage discrimination, which led to a new collective bargaining agreement. It was a fight that inspired other sportswomen: Canada’s soccer team reportedly sought advice on how to get maternity coverage into contracts, and the US hockey team asked the USWNT for help.
Around the world, women’s teams found their voices. Nigeria’s soccer players held a sit-in at their hotel to demand unpaid salaries, Ireland’s female footballers threatened to strike, Australia did so, and Norway signed an equal pay agreement in 2017.
Just months before the start of the World Cup in France, 28 members of the US squad, including Rapinoe, filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the US’ soccer federation, citing “institutionalized gender discrimination,” which the reigning world champions say had existed for years. Last week, it was reported that the players and the federation have agreed to begin a mediation process after the World Cup.
At the time, Rapinoe told CNN Sport that she and her teammates would “fight until the end” in the battle for equality and that the USWNT was happy to “clear the path as much as we can” for other countries in the battle for gender equality.
There was the use of the word “fight” again. Rapinoe will continue to stand up for her beliefs. That the US President has started to take notice will probably embolden a player who believes there are things that are much more important than soccer.