It is hard to keep count of all the polarizing ways that people describe Megan Rapinoe. The United States women’s soccer forward is a star, and she’s a pariah. She is fun-loving, and she’s annoying. She is exuberant, and she’s excessive. She is a necessary voice, and she’s an irreverent troublemaker. She is delightful, and she’s disgraceful. She is essential to our World Cup hopes, and when she declines to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” with her teammates, she’s inappropriate for our world-class ego.
She is America, too, by the way. Oh, she’s America. And there is no counter to that.
Rapinoe is just a person unafraid to express the good, bad and unflinchingly ugly in our diverse and complicated country, and that allows her to be a mirror. The way you react to Rapinoe reflects an image of America. It can be depressing to see, but at least it is true. This is the point of her audacity, of her declaration that she is a “walking protest.” She forces you to care.
Love or hate her, celebrate with or root against her, dig or dis her colorful hairstyles. She is still going to represent the U.S. and do so with athletic grace and grit. She is still the woman who scored two goals on penalty kicks to lead Team USA past Spain and into the World Cup quarterfinals. You will pay attention to her, and if you are not too busy listening to your own voice, perhaps you will learn something.
So let’s add the two most accurate descriptions of Rapinoe: gifted and unavoidable. Her presence on this team makes her too good to be ignored. For the past 20 years, the U.S. women’s national team has been one of sports’ greatest forces for gender equality and female empowerment. The roster changes, and the results vary, but a gold standard of performance remains.
Going back even before the legendary 1999 squad, there has been a special combination that binds the program: sense of mission and embrace of individuality. Many believe there is almost a mindless submission of self-required way to make a team work. It’s the all-for-one, one-for-all theory. In reality, that decision is a conscious one, and the best teams remember that they are a group of individuals, not an easily homogenized creation.
The acceptance and appreciation of difference creates the strongest team bond. It establishes the connection that allows teammates to compete for something even greater than a championship. Talk to any of the women from 1999 — Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Michelle Akers and the rest — and they will articulate how different yet alike they were flexible enough to be.
It is easy to disagree with Rapinoe’s actions and declare her a bad teammate or bad American. But her defiance exemplifies the U.S. women’s soccer tradition. This program was built on personality, distinct characters and outspokenness. It was built on trailblazing. And it was built, through excellence, on combating prejudiced views of what is possible and what is proper for female athletes. The ongoing fight for equal pay is one important example. Rapinoe is helping with that fight and waging some battles of her own against other types of injustice, including her mission to strengthen LGBTQ rights. Her stances do not make her different from her teammates and a detriment to this great soccer program. They verify that she is a product of a revolutionary tradition.
Inevitably, Rapinoe became a recipient of President Donald Trump’s admonishment this week for opting not to sing the national anthem with her teammates. Athletes peacefully protesting during the anthem is his pet sports issue, and if you have not been paying attention the past few years, you need only to search Rapinoe’s name on Twitter to catch up on why. Patriotism is a complex concept, but for many, it is a sacrilegious act to behave in any manner deemed improper during the anthem and before the American flag.
The topic is so uncomfortable, which is what Rapinoe wants. After Colin Kaepernick began his kneeling protest in the NFL three years ago, Rapinoe became the first prominent white or female athlete to do the same before a Seattle Reign match in September 2016. In response to her protest, the National Women’s Soccer League and U.S. Soccer Federation have spelled out their policies and tried to curtail Rapinoe’s acts. But she has continued to express herself in various forms. Standing tight-lipped during the anthem is essentially a compromise, but the image continues to look rebellious.
During a World Cup, the pride of country turns excessive and magnifies such a stance. As much as I love these international sporting events, they also make me feel queasy because of the potential for jingoism. There is no single way to be American.
Rapinoe is not anti-American for refusing to smile and sing through her disappointment. She is simply a disappointed American. But few ever ask why and listen to her concerns. Instead, they make ridiculous statements about waiting for a proper time to protest. When is the time right? When no one is paying attention? When no one is around to feel uncomfortable?
The point of civil disobedience is to make the ignoring stop.
For those who want Rapinoe to shut up and kick because she makes a good living and enjoys a level of freedom that other countries do not have, perhaps Rapinoe should write “SORRY” into her hair the next time she wants to change her ’do. Society cannot advance if the fortunate declare selfishly, “I’ve got it pretty good. Best wishes to the rest of y’all.”
It takes a privileged person to speak to privilege. “You’ve got it good” shouldn’t be a pacifier. It should be a motivator to help others have it better. Rapinoe wants more for herself and for others, and that is the kind of compassionate pursuit of success that should make you want to sing.
Let’s not lionize Rapinoe. She is flawed, and she likely can point out her shortcomings faster than you can, especially on the field. She is not an athletic martyr like Kaepernick because she is still playing the sport she loves. But she is an essential rebel: a defiant woman refusing to play by the antiquated be-cute-and-courteous rules that make many men feel better about female athletes. She is a societal disrupter, born of a program of societal disrupters, and thank heavens that this individual decided to join forces with this team.
Rapinoe chooses to stand out, but it does not diminish the love and gratitude she feels when representing the U.S. It is an amazing honor, and it is also an earned one. She was not drawn from a hat. She is one of the best in the world at her craft, and as lucky as she is to be on the squad, the team is just as lucky to have her.
Disagree with her? Fine. But there she is, striving to add to our women’s soccer prestige. She is America. Like her or not, Rapinoe is going to represent us, and all of our spectacular complications. She is a mirror, unflattering, uncomfortable. Unavoidable.