Megan Rapinoe’s perennial defiance of flawed societal norms can inspire the next generation

As the Star-Spangled Banner bellowed out at Stade de Lyon, the cameras panned across the faces of the United States Women’s National Team as they geared up to take on the Netherlands in the 2019 World Cup final. The players roared out their country’s anthem, beaming with pride and anticipation, but at the end of the line, one lady’s silence was rather more telling than the chorus of her peers.


Megan Rapinoe had her head held high, and her lips firmly locked together. A symbol of defiance, an epitome of resistance and a source of inspiration, the California-born winger wore the captain’s armband but declined to partake in belting out the traditional anthem. Rejecting to involve herself in this cultural practice has been painted as a snub to patriotism, and the pride associated with being an American. However, what could possibly be more patriotic than taking a stand to portray a rejection of the chauvinism that now connotes itself with the United States, and striving for the best possible version of a nation – one that breeds acceptance for diversity and an onus on equality? 


As Rapinoe stood tall at the end of the line-up, she was anomalous in her silence. However, she has established herself as the voice of hundreds of thousands of people across the globe who have had their say belittled, overlooked and neglected. What the 34-year-old stands for, and has stood for throughout her life, is a message that far exceeds the importance of 90 minutes on a football pitch. For many years now, the two-time Women’s World Cup winner has used her sporting platform as a vehicle to drive awareness towards the LGBTQ+ community, aiding its growth in global acknowledgement and support, and it would seem as though her message is now finally being heard.


The unapologetically outspoken manner with which Rapinoe has become associated, wedded with her determination to utilise her influential position in a nowadays-unorthodox fashion, has earned her both plaudits and critics – one of whom just so happens to be the single most influential figure on the planet. The Reign FC captain is unfazed, though, and has not once wavered from her beliefs, no matter the response that is garnered by her forthrightness. 


In what has developed into a globally-publicised feud between two unlikely figures, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, was less than pleased when Rapinoe defiantly voiced her rejection of any proposed invitation to The White House should the USWNT have lifted the trophy this summer. “I’m not going to the f***ing White House” are eight words which have been somewhat canonised already by the masses, but ones that left the President with more than a touched nerve. 


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Rapinoe had previously visited The White House in October 2015 following the USWNT’s triumph at the World Cup in the preceding summer. The squad was honoured by then-President Barack Obama, who was quick to inform the energetic winger that he had already been aware of the tributes made to her by a farm in Northern California. In honour of Rapinoe’s exploits at the tournament, a portrait of her face had been constructed with corn maze and displayed as a mark of appreciation. She certainly had no qualms meeting this leader of her beloved country, but nowadays, the feeling is rather more different.


“Megan should WIN first before she TALKS!”, read a musing from President Trump on Twitter. Addressing Rapinoe on a first-name basis despite her efforts to totally disassociate herself with the man and his philosophies was one thing, but the thinly-veiled insinuation that he had expressed a doubt in the USWNT’s pursuit of glory this summer despite their excellent form and consistency proved more than enough to warrant some refutation from supporters of the team and natives of the United States.


Typically, the best footballers do their talking on the pitch, where they let their talents prevail, and their dialogue pale into insignificance. Rapinoe, however, is an exception to the many rules that have established themselves in both sport and society. She has never been one to succumb to silencing, and throughout this summer’s tournament, she voiced her beliefs in a stoic yet collected manner, challenging the authoritative powers at the top of high-profile organisations. The former Lyon star talked the talk off the pitch, and most certainly walked the walk on it. 


Rapinoe’s frank assessments in interviews were hardly unfounded, either. In nearly the same breath as her colourful response to whether or not she was looking forward to potentially visiting The White House, she stated, “We’re not gonna be invited. I doubt it”. Statistics prove that her suspicions were hardly unjustified, even if the President has since employed some conveniently-timed PR tactics having offered the squad a chance to receive recognition at the political hub of the country regardless of whether they won the tournament or not.

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President Trump hardly has a glittering record of apportioning sufficient acknowledgement for the success that women’s sports teams in the United States have enjoyed since his installment. As reported by Business Insider in June, the Baylor Bears – a women’s college basketball team – is the only one of its kind to have attended a ceremony hosted at The White House as an acknowledgement of its championship win. The four other female outfits who had triumphed – The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, The Seattle Storm, The Minnesota Lynx and The South Carolina Gamecocks – were all snubbed. 


Rapinoe, likely aware of the ignorance that the President has evidently displayed towards the achievements of women in sport, explained her stance to Sports Illustrated in May, stating that she would not “fake it, hobnob with the president, who is clearly against so many of the things that I am [for] and so many of the things that I actually am.” It goes without saying that the 34-year-old will not ever compromise her firmly-ingrained principles, and she is unsurprisingly refusing to indulge in the previously traditional mingling with the key figurehead of the United States.


While the political message she depicts with unrelenting consistency bears a potentially enormous societal influence, it is her exploits on the football pitch that have enabled her to gain such a platform, and her tremendous efforts for the USWNT must not be overlooked. Rapinoe turned in displays of ruthless efficiency in France this summer, netting six goals in five games – five of which came in knockout fixtures – and stole the show, clinching the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards, along with the Player of the Match accolade for her performance in the final.


The Reign FC skipper was arguably not at her best, with moments of magic appearing in transient spells during the World Cup campaign, and concerns surrounding her durability towards the latter stages of matches. However, while leadership may not be a tangible quality as such, the influence she exuded to her teammates was unrivalled. Rapinoe helped the players around her – both young, senior and anything in between – perform to a higher standard, inspiring them with her ability to lead by example, driving them to yet another global footballing accolade. 


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Rapinoe was, in fact, somewhat quiet as the USWNT locked horns with the Netherlands in the final. Nevertheless, when her teammates and the nation needed her to step up and impose her pedigree on the most significant occasion in women’s football, she duly delivered. After a VAR review, Jill Ellis saw her team awarded a penalty. In what had been an intense affair, in which Sari van Veenendaal saw her goal peppered with desperate efforts, Rapinoe took the mantle, calmed proceedings down and tucked home the opener. Her penalty was dispatched with freakish composure given the stakes on offer; when the world was watching, the USWNT’s most charismatic figure stepped up to the plate, and with ice still running through her veins fresh from the calmly-slotted spot-kick, stretched out her arms as a smile edged across her face in a celebration that has become somewhat synonymous with this team – a group that brims with confidence and exuberance on and off the field.


“Championship or bust”, she said. Rapinoe was never going to let the latter of the two options occur, and with a leader of her unshakeable belief, it was really no surprise to see the USWNT eventually ease to the World Cup trophy once again. While shining on the field, the 34-year-old drew from football’s unwritten purpose of community, instigating a togetherness among the American fanbase and even inspiring those who had previously held no affection towards the national team.


Rapinoe’s message may only now be captivating a wider audience, but her firm stance on societal matters such as inequality is hardly a recent development. For several years now, she has been a philanthropist for the LGBTQ+ community, spreading awareness as and when the opportunity arises, and she has also taken very public stands against racially-driven oppression in the United States. In 2012, she was given the Board of Directors award by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center for her efforts in supporting LGBT individuals within sport. In the following year, she was named as an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a non-profit organisation which focuses in on putting a stop to both transphobia and homophobia in sport.


Rapinoe has taken a plethora of other measures in her pursuit of utilising the powers of football to influence society. Another example comes via Manchester United men’s midfielder Juan Mata and his Common Goal cause, of which the USWNT co-captain and her compatriot Alex Morgan were the first female athletes to involve themselves in. 


However, the one single moment that appeared to embody Rapinoe’s desire to show the world that she was a willing and public advocate for change came on September 4 2016. Prior to Reign FC’s 2-2 draw with Chicago Red Stars, the national anthem was played. As her teammates and the opponents proceeded to sing, the winger had other plans. Instead, she knelt. For the first ever time, safe in the knowledge that the backlash and resentment she would receive was little more than an inevitability, she refused to abide by tradition and took a knee in an act of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested against racial injustice and oppression in the United States by kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner.

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Following the match, Rapinoe faced the predictable questions about why she felt it was necessary for her to replicate Kaepernick’s actions and take a knee while her peers unassumingly recited the national anthem. She told American Soccer Now: “It was a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now. I think it’s actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated, and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn’t. We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country.”


Rapinoe vowed to follow suit, continuing to kneel whenever the song was played, and within less than two weeks, her actions again matched up to her promises, this time on an even bigger platform. As the USWNT lined up ahead of their international clash with Thailand, her unmoved, unapologetic rejection of the proceedings undertaken regarding racial oppression in the United States prevailed, as she knelt from the substitutes bench as her teammates, this time at an international level, stood and adhered to the ever-increasingly flawed cultural norms once again.


Such was the backlash that Rapinoe received following her decision to kneel against Thailand that U.S. Soccer issued a statement in response. “As part of the privilege to represent your country,” it read. “We have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.” The Federation would have been foolish to consider their job done, however, as the statement only reaffirmed Rapinoe’s position. She proceeded to hit back in an interview by claiming that “using this blanketed patriotism as a defense against what the protest actually is was pretty cowardly”, before indicating that she had sung the national anthem for the final time.


Some months later, further efforts to eradicate Rapinoe’s peaceful yet allegedly disrespectful decision to abide by her principles were carried out. U.S. Soccer implemented a new regulation into its bylaws which states that every sportsperson is instructed to “stand respectfully during the playing of the national anthems at any event in which the Federation is represented.” So, Rapinoe begrudgingly accepted the new rules but continued in her refusal to join in with signing the anthem. When all eyes fell upon the image of her, lined at the end of the USWNT in this summer’s World Cup, there was not a sign even of temptation to immerse herself in the now-tainted perception of what the national anthem represents.


Why does Rapinoe care so much, though? She, herself, has not been racially oppressed, nor has she encountered the same societal situations for which Kaepernick has fought tooth and nail to bring about change. The answer, simply put, is because she feels as though it is the duty not just of herself, but of us as people, to strive for fairness, and the elimination of discriminative behaviour. 


In an entry for The Players’ Tribune in 2016, Rapinoe explained how she acted on her determination to pursue more sensitivity from a racial viewpoint following the courage that Kaepernick showed by putting his foot down and refusing to accept the standards by which the United States and its authorities had fallen to. “I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street,” she said. “But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache.” This is something we can all learn from; fighting for each other, standing up in the face of adversity and making our voices heard when we recognise what is right and what is wrong should be common practice, not out of the ordinary.

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“This is about more than just raising awareness. I know that actions must be taken to help bring about real change. Right now, I am reaching out to community leaders, corporate partners and leaders within the Black Lives Matter movement to figure out all the ways I can best support the efforts already in motion.” Rapinoe’s emphasis on uniting communities to strive for change is apparent. The belief that there is a collective responsibility, inclusive of each and every individual, to be better underlies within her ethos, whether a person has the platform to facilitate such societal transformations or not. “This is not a “them” problem – this is an “us” problem,” she continued in her TPT post. “And, if you are in a position of influence like I am, you can use your platform to elevate the millions of voices being silenced and support them in the tremendous work already being done.”


Fast forward over two and a half years, and Rapinoe has – to no surprise – stuck to her word. The Reign FC winger’s fight to be heard has been perennial, and while there is still some way to go for her visions of acceptance to become truly realised on a global scale, her acts of solidarity are inspiring those within and outside of communities such as the LGBTQ+. However, it is not just the public who have grown enamoured to Rapinoe’s message. Those closest to her have arguably been the most inspired, as evidenced by her older brother Brian, whom she looked up to during her childhood. “I was her hero, but now – there’s no question – she is mine,” he said in a recent interview.

The 38-year-old has endured a difficult life, one which has been plagued by numerous incarcerations. He struggled with drug addiction during his teenage years and into adulthood, where he was then sucked into a world of further wrongdoing, in which a catalogue of criminal offences would be committed. Brian appeared to have been on a hiding to nothing, but having watched his younger sister rise to prominence and achieve remarkable feats on and off the pitch, he is striving to become a better version of himself. “I want to make a difference,” he told Gwendolyn Oxenham for ESPN. “I want to be like Megan.” Not only is Rapinoe cementing her position as a role model for the next generation, but she is also doing so for those who have grown up alongside her, watching on with admiration as she has become a figure of inspiration.


As the world watched on, the USWNT co-captain intelligently made use of the popularity that developed in this summer’s World Cup to courageously highlight the timeless yet conscious issues which have existed in football, chiefly instigated by the manipulative efforts of male figures at the top of institutions like FIFA who have the power to make decisions. While ridicule has inevitably followed from those who are perhaps threatened by the rise of the women’s game, Rapinoe’s message has been heard loud and clear. 


Her annoyance regarding FIFA’s decision to schedule the Copa América final between Brazil and Chile along with the Gold Cup final between the USMNT and Mexico on the same day as the Women’s World Cup final has been well publicised. In typically brash yet eloquent fashion, Rapinoe left no room for interpretation with her thoughts. “It’s terrible scheduling, don’t you guys feel disrespected?”, asked Rapinoe. “It is a terrible idea to put all three on the same day in every way. There are two other finals going on, but this is the World Cup final, ‘cancel everything day’. I don’t know how that happened, and I heard somewhere they just didn’t think about it, which is the problem. When the World Cup is set so far in advance, it’s unbelievable. We don’t feel the same level of respect that FIFA has for the men or just in general”.

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In response, the Federation lazily reasoned: “It is a rare and exciting occurrence.” Thankfully, the spirits were not, and still have not, been dampened by the two subsequent finals, and the USWNT’s commendable achievements and monopoly of the most lucrative prize in the women’s game have rightfully received mass recognition. What followed Rapinoe’s exposure of the illogical methods that FIFA employed was, from many angles of the public, scrutiny and dismissal, as is so often the case when women challenge the powers that be in major organisations. She is correct, however. Irrespective of sex, any World Cup final should be a globally anticipated and celebrated sporting event; the thought of having the men’s fixture on the same day as so much as any kind of competitive footballing match, let alone one or two other finals, would be proclaimed absurd.


Rapinoe, in almost the same breath as her unsurprised disillusionment regarding the scheduling tactics, also made her feelings abundantly clear once again on the disparity in pay between the winners of the men’s World Cup in comparison to the women’s. “Good to hear about investment, they should probably double it [again],” she said. FIFA made the decision to increase the prize money to $60 million for the winners of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, having doubled it from $15 million to $30 million previously, as per claims from Gianni Infantino, the President of the Federation. The prize money distributed to the France men’s national team following their triumph at the 2018 World Cup? $400 million – a stark contrast.

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The 34-year-old has long been an advocate for bridging the pay gap that has uninterruptedly divided the men and women’s game. Rapinoe was one of many who filed a federal labour complaint against U.S. Soccer in 2016, stating that female footballers received only 40 per cent of the financial incentives that men’s teams do, all while providing ‘tens of millions’ more dollars in revenue. Earlier this year, the USWNT upped the ante in the quest for equal pay, filing a federal gender discrimination lawsuit. Uncoincidentally filed on International Women’s Day, the lawsuit demanded that women within the game are treated with greater care, and also that they receive financial equity with their male peers.


“We’re not asking for $450m for lots of different reasons,” Rapinoe insists. “The men’s game is far more advanced financially than the women’s game but if you are letting the gap grow and scheduling three finals [on the same day] are you letting federations play two games in four years between tournaments?” She is hardly unrealistic in her demands. There is an acknowledgement of the rationale behind the differences in how money is distributed and received in the men’s game compared to that of the women’s, but such inequality and the degree of which the disparity exists remains a concerning question that FIFA has yet to account for. 


“We need attention and detail and the best minds in the women’s game helping it grow. It is a very complex problem and thing to be a part of. Resources are there, and brainpower is there – it’s all there. It’s just wanting to do it and caring enough about it to make it happen.” And therein lies the issue. Those at the very top of organisations such as FIFA are by no means unaware of the problematic nature by which women’s football is approached. To reason their neglect with the concept of false consciousness would be almost insulting – the inequalities and dismissive hegemonic attitudes are painted in black and white. As Rapinoe states, the brainpower does indeed exist within the Federation, but what is lacking is effort, and the meagre foundations of desire to undertake transformative measures. For as long as patriarchal figures head up the hierarchies of powerful institutions like FIFA, it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But where there is passion, there is determination, and in individuals like the USWNT hero, there is an unequivocal desire to instigate change. 


Rapinoe has regularly offered an insight into the life of women in football, which bears intrinsic similarities to the differences that are evident yet overlooked in society. “I think it’s pretty clear women in sport have not been treated with the same care and financing and all of that that men’s sports has,” the USWNT co-captain has asserted. While male footballers live rather more lavish lifestyles when they are often even only halfway to the top of the footballing food chain, players like Rapinoe – one of the most consistently impressive female players on the planet over the course of many years – are scarcely afforded such luxuries. 


“We do not have the conveniences that the top-level male players have,” Rapinoe wrote in her TPT entry in June this year. “It’s just a fact. We have to make our supplemental income any way we can – appearances, events, video shoots, whatever. We’re not flying private. We don’t have personal chefs. We work out at the gym like you do. It’s the most fun job in the entire world, but it’s a different lifestyle.” The perception that care and attention is not correctly apportioned to the women’s game exists principally as a consequence of insights such as that of the 34-year-old’s into the life of female footballers.

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Rapinoe is, of course, wholly grateful for the platform she has and the life that football has provided her with – after all, the woman herself has described “the most fun job in the entire world” as more of a vocation than an occupation. However, ignoring her opinions on the existing norms that have been unchallenged as a consequence of the silencing of women in society over decades upon decades would be negligent. If her ruthless finishing and leadership on the pitch were impressive in France, her usage of the press conferences and interviews were worthy of immense commendation. 


Another high-profile footballer in the women’s game who has put her foot down and advocated the protest against how females are regarded by FIFA is Ada Hegerberg, the prolific Lyon striker. In 2017, she informed the Norwegian FA that she would no longer represent her country in international fixtures while the women’s side continued to receive comparably worse treatment than the men’s. The forward’s stance has not softened, and she duly kept her word, sitting out of Norway’s campaign at the World Cup this summer – an almighty loss not just to her national team, but to the tournament, too.


Hegerberg has been the subject of mystifyingly blatant sexism on a big stage, herself. Upon being awarded the Ballon d’Or Féminin – the first of its kind – last year, the ceremony’s host, French DJ Martin Solveig, presented her with the trophy before proceeding to ask the 25-year-old if she was able to twerk – live on air, in the presence of high-profile figures in the footballing world, on one of the biggest occasions of her career to date. Hegerberg was not silenced by the proposition, having dealt with the incident with remarkable composure, before initially attempting to walk away from the interview. But, the awkwardly stupefied expression on her face told thousands more words than her straightforward response of ‘no’ ever could.


While this single example of sexism within the world of women’s football was not a direct product of FIFA’s, it occurred right under their noses at a glamorous event staged by the Federation, and precious little has been done about it. In fact, subsequent to the initial controversy that surrounded the incident, it has rather sunk into obscurity, falling off the radar and been chalked down as just another one of many instances of a ‘joke’, as Solveig so half-heartedly alluded to in his video apology following the ceremony, only after taking to Twitter to recognise the error in his ways.

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In an interview with CNN, Hegerberg explained her view on the battle for equity of treatment between the women and men’s game. She said, “There are federations, there are clubs, there are men in high positions who have that responsibility to put the women in the right place, and that’s where I think, I feel, and I know, we have a long way to go.” The Lyon star is absolutely correct. There is an unfinished journey ahead despite recent progress to ensure the deep-rooted sexism that exists within football, but also in the culture by which it manifests itself, is eradicated, and USWNT attacker Rapinoe is among the fiercest philanthropists for this cause.


At 34, there is no telling when the Reign FC captain will decide to hang up her boots. She is in the archetypal twilight of her career, but retirement has hardly been spoken of hitherto. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not she is taking to the field as a player, or continuing to speak her mind off it, she is going some way in educating the next generation of not just footballers, but people, about how society can be changed for the benefit of oppressed individuals. USWNT boss Jill Ellis waxed lyrical about Rapinoe, stating that “for some people, the spotlight can burn, but for Megan, it highlights who she is.” Moreover, who she is has undoubtedly inspired hundreds of thousands across the globe this summer.


Reflecting on when Rapinoe had been overlooked and restricted from returning to full fitness after suffering an anterior cruciate ligament injury in the build-up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, she was unwilling to sit back and accept the way that things were. “It felt like maybe if I faded off into the sunset, that would’ve been just fine. Well, guess what? I wasn’t gonna fade away. Tough s***t.” She got herself back into condition and was rostered for the USWNT’s involvement in the Games. Proving her doubters wrong and pushing herself to the very limits for what she is passionate about is ingrained in her.


Following yet another outstanding triumph on the footballing stage, in which she displayed her qualities as an ambassador for women’s football, the fight against sexism, and the push for equality, only one thing is certain. Megan Rapinoe and her message will not be fading off into the sunset this time around, either.

By: Luke Osman

Featured Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty