The penalty that she missed against Sweden and closed the American elimination in the last World Cup was not the end of Megan Rapinoe’s story. Who knows if it will be the one who plays this Sunday with his club, OL Reign, where the team is playing for qualification against the playoffs of the NWSL. Rapinoe’s long farewell tour, to a full stadium throughout the United States, has ended – for now – being a reflection of everything the midfielder helped build. And everything that will survive it.
Activist athletes are said to live multiple lives at once. Rapinoe came out of the closet at the University of Portland – where she studied Sociology – long before appearing in public life. The rest of the world only found out in 2012 – the year the team won the London Games –, three years before gay marriage was approved in her country. And for a sport that was fleeing the stigma of “tomboyishness” in its efforts to expand, Rapinoe’s freedom to express herself without qualms or regrets set the tone for the naturalness with which soccer players of this generation live their sexuality today.
But their social struggle took another flight in 2016, when American football player Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans. Rapinoe, face of her national team, one of the most successful, Olympic and world champion, was one of the first white athletes to do the same in solidarity. She also knelt down. And others followed her example.
“I have not experienced over-policing, racial discrimination or police brutality; “I have not seen the body of a dead relative in the street,” he wrote that year in The Player’s Tribune. “But I can’t stand by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of pain.” The anger of the far right, emboldened that year by Donald Trump’s campaign, was instantaneous and particularly fierce on social networks, where they did not understand the intersectionality of the gesture. “I know I’m gay and a woman, but I have a lot of privileges, I can bring people together and dispel some myths,” Rapinoe explained to the Seattle Times.
At the same time, as leader of the national team, she led the women’s team’s campaign against gender discrimination and for salary parity with their male counterparts who, as they pointed out, had not earned anything. They, yes. As was the case with LGBT visibility and opposition to white supremacy, this demand for equality pitted them against half the country. Trump was elected president at the end of that year, and player and president collided.
In a message recorded before the 2019 World Cup in France, which her team won, Megan Rapinoe, captain of the team defending the title, flatly stated that, if the team lifted the title, they would not go “to the fucking White House” because “ there was no way they would invite them,” as is often done with local and international champions in the United States. Trump, who during his term saw sports as a theater of cultural wars, entered the dispute via Twitter, stating that he wanted his victory. But he clarified: “Megan must win before speaking.” In a fight that lasted as long as it took to repeat the title, Rapinoe knew how to maintain her composure and concentration, and was crowned two-time champion, scorer and best player in the World Cup.
For Jules Boykoff, researcher and professor of Politics and Sports at the University of the Pacific, in Oregon, that moment, in which all the causes that Rapinoe represents converged, elevated her to the historical pantheon of activist athletes, at the level of Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “Sometimes we forget how much pressure there was on her, with her president saying all those nasty things about her,” Boykoff explains.
Thus, his goodbye (final the day his club is eliminated from the fight for the title) is not just a farewell, but rather a consecration. And the criticism that the team received after the last World Cup, where they fell in the round of 16, indicates this. Rapinoe’s cause had become the cause of all. “What these conservatives don’t understand is that when sports figures use their celebrity to promote social justice, they are actually supporting American values by holding us accountable when we fail,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote after the elimination.
Rapinoe, whose fight created a rebellion on multiple fronts worldwide, of labor rights for athletes, of solidarity with all social justice struggles, of gay and lesbian visibility in sports, understood it better. “We are playing two games at the same time,” he told the magazine in August The Atlantic. “We are playing against each other, but we are also playing together to achieve equality, progress and what we deserve.” As the national team players would claim shortly after in the thread of the Rubiales caseher fight, that of Rapinoe, that of Jenni Hermoso, “is everyone’s fight.”
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