By James Bagby
Megan Rapinoe shot to prominence with 6 goals and 3 assists seeing U.S.A. to their 4th women’s World Cup. However, more recently it’s her actions off the field which have made her more relevant in the public eye.
Her extravagant celebrations drew criticism and she has not been afraid to use her platform as a sportswoman to voice on controversial issues off the pitch. This raises the question as to whether she is a role model to girls in football and the LGBTQ community, or an arrogant maverick who has swayed too far away from her lane.
Rapinoe grew up in a small working-class town in California with her parents and five siblings. It was her older brother Brian who started her passion in football, following him to a local football pitch every day from the age of three. She idolised him and consequently was heartbroken when he was arrested for bringing drugs into school.
She credits football as her escape from the drug problems that are common in rural California and it was this sport which provided her with a scholarship to the University of Portland in Oregon. It was at University where Megan came out as gay, something she was comfortable with and viewed it as obvious for her whole childhood. In fact, she enjoyed finding herself out of the mainstream, a common theme which would follow in her career.
Over ten years, and a World Cup winner’s medal, later Rapinoe found herself chasing her second medal as the co-captain for United States Women’s National Team. It is at this point her profile becomes global for her actions at the 2019 World Cup. During the tournament Rapinoe was quoted as “not going to the f***ing White House”, a common invitation to U.S. sports teams who win a championship. This led to a twitter spat with Donald Trump who claimed that Rapinoe “should never disrespect our country, the White House or our flag”.
Rapinoe finished joint top scorer at the World Cup using her traditional celebration of pushing her chest out and throwing her arms wide to entertain the crowd at each opportunity. This celebration drew criticism from the likes of Piers Morgan who described the pose as arrogant. After the World Cup win further celebration on the bus parade was scrutinised. Rapinoe was filmed by a teammate grasping the trophy exclaiming “I deserve this! I deserve this. Everything.”
Since her World Cup triumph, she was interviewed on talk shows as well as news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. It was here where she carried on pushing her political message and reiterated her lack of interest in going to the White House to meet the current administration. Her doubters question this message claiming that if she was really interested in change why would she not talk with the people in power? Rapinoe’s response is that she doesn’t want to “lend the platform that they (the team) has worked so hard to build to be co-opted and corrupted by this administration.”
Her critics are quick to point out that there is no “I” in team and believe that her celebrations are an effort to make the team’s triumph all about herself. Another common affliction with Rapinoe is her political activism. In 2016 she kneeled during the national anthem, a gesture designed to protest against police brutality against the African-American community. Since then the U.S. soccer federation amended rules on this subject requiring all players to stand respectfully during the anthem. During the World Cup Rapinoe obliged but declined to sing along and kept her hands by her side. This action was described by President Trump as inappropriate.
Her fans view her in a much more different light. Her openness to stand for what she believes in has been admired for breaking the mould of what is “expected” by women in sport. She has used her platform within the game to reach outside of the pitch, one of the first female football players to do so. Rapinoe has been front and centre of the USWNT lawsuit against US soccer over equal pay. Despite playing and winning more games than their male counterparts the women’s team receive less pay and Rapinoe has not been quiet on this issue. It is further comparison with the men’s game that is used by her supporters to shoot down critics of her celebrations.
Regardless of whether you believe that Rapinoe is a role model she will inspire more women in sport through her trailblazing attitude. She has raised the profile of woman’s football singlehandedly through her outspoken nature. At the peak of the world cup there were more Google searches for Megan Rapinoe than forwomen’s football/soccer altogether. By bringing women’s football to not just the back pages but the front pages of national newspapers more young women will get involved in football, becoming the role models of tomorrow.
Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli are lauded for their loud and obnoxious celebrations, why should Rapinoe be treated with such a double standard? Fellow footballer Juan Mata has described Rapinoe as an inspiration and urged more footballers to follow her lead. Like Mata she has also pledged one percent of her salary to Common Goal, a charity designed to unite the football community in tackling the greatest social challenges of our time.