17 Aug Megan Rapinoe: ‘We’re everything Trump loves – except that we’re powerful women’ | Football
It is two weeks since the US women’s football team shut down midtown Manhattan on their World Cup victory parade and Megan Rapinoe, the team’s co-captain and most visible member, is still trying to come down from the high. We are in Los Angeles, where the US national team is due to play a friendly against Ireland. Rapinoe – slight, sharp-eyed, perennially amused – is considering the past fortnight. “How long can we be drunk for?” she says, laughing. “To go through such a high – there is obviously a comedown and nobody really has the time to decompress. I think everyone feels in this state of ‘Yes, this is awesome.’ But I’m also struggling to get back to normal.”
The sense of unreality is particularly acute for Rapinoe, whose profile over the course of the tournament shot from mid-level sporting celebrity to something much bigger, thanks to, as she puts it with some understatement, “one of those general cultural events that happen”. This is a reference not only to her public spat with Donald Trump – in a video recorded before the World Cup that went viral during the tournament, she said: “I’m not going to the fucking White House,” when asked whether she was looking forward to a victorious visit – but to her demeanour in general.
The US women’s team are the most successful in the sport’s history: they have won four World Cups, four Olympic gold medals and more than three-quarters of the matches they have played since their first, in 1985. (By contrast, the US men’s team have not gone further than the quarter-finals of the World Cup since 1930, when they came third.) Yet the word most commonly used to describe Rapinoe in the past few weeks has been “unapologetic”, with its implication of propriety overturned. She is unapologetically gay, unapologetically political and, above all, unapologetically proud of herself and her teammates. Her habit of celebrating a goal with her chest out, arms thrown wide to milk the crowd, is a standard piece of burlesque in men’s football. When undertaken by Rapinoe, though, it made headlines. At last month’s victory parade, she kissed the trophy and yelled: “I deserve this!” and for a moment, conventions governing women’s conduct in public seemed thrillingly, shockingly to change.
The best thing about all this is that the 34-year-old, known to her fans as “Pinoe”, refuses to agonise about any of it – not even being yelled at by Trump on Twitter appears to faze her. After Rapinoe’s caustic remark, he tweeted a series of rambling messages that praised the team, while accusing her of disrespecting “our Country, the White House [and] our Flag”.
“It’s ridiculous and absurd,” she says, in the kind of unmeasured tone that has made her such a gratifying repudiator of the normalisation of Trump. “People were like: ‘That was so intense!’ And I’m like: ‘Honestly, he’s a fucking joke, so it wasn’t intense, because this is ridiculous.’” Rapinoe’s timeline blew up, but she says she doesn’t read comments about her. “I never have. And I think I’d been conditioned, from kneeling, to being used to the craziest shit happening in my Twitter feed.” Rapinoe is referring to the time in 2016 when she kneeled during the national anthem before a match, a gesture inaugurated by the NFL star Colin Kaepernick in protest against police brutality towards African Americans. At the time, she wrote: “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.” The US Soccer Federation later amended its rules to require all players to “stand respectfully” during the anthem; Rapinoe did so at the World Cup, but, unlike her teammates, she didn’t put her hand over her heart or sing along.
Whatever your views of the president, to be yelled at online by the most powerful man in the world would represent to most people an alarming brush with authority. Wasn’t there a tiny part of Rapinoe that thought: “What have I done?”
“The only moment where I was like ‘Aaaargh!’ was when I thought: ‘Is this going to affect the team in some way?’ I didn’t want that to happen. But actually I have the opposite [view of] authority – my sister and I both.” Rapinoe’s non-identical twin sister, Rachael, is a former professional footballer. “I wouldn’t say that we’re anti-authority, but when there’s a person who is abusing their power or manipulating people, whether it’s a teacher when I was younger or Donald Trump now, there’s nothing that fires me up and grinds my gears more. I was just like: ‘No. That’s not happening.’”
One of the most delicious aspects of Rapinoe’s fight with the president was watching him malfunction under the weight of his own contradictions. “We are everything he loves,” says Rapinoe – sportspeople, winners, Team America – “with the exception that we’re powerful, strong women. And he was having a really hard time – you could see in these sets of tweets: you hate us, you love us, you want us to come [to the White House] – and you are threatening us, all at the same time.”
In his response to Rapinoe, the president goaded her and the team with the suggestion that: “Megan should WIN first before she TALKS!” From the outside, this looked like intolerable pressure, particularly to English people who can’t stand high stakes on the pitch. She bursts out laughing. “That’s because you guys are so unsuccessful at everything.” Yeah, but we like losing, I point out. And we wear it so well. “Yeah,” she says, still smiling. “I always said that if you guys would loosen up a bit – let that asshole go a little – and actually have some enjoyment, you might have some success.”
Rapinoe, a veteran taker of penalty kicks, considers the lingering trauma to the English psyche of Gareth Southgate’s missed penalty during England’s semi-final against Germany in Euro 96. Southgate has long since redeemed himself, but, on some level, the country never recovered. “Nobody remembers the redemption,” she says, in reference to the English talent for nursing an injury. “We’ll let anybody back in for a second chance; you guys never forget the first fuck-up.”
It is hard to imagine Rapinoe bowing her head in shame under any circumstances, let alone on the football field. She metabolises failure with startling briskness. “I just don’t get too down,” she says, with a theatrical twang. “I’ve lost a World Cup final in the dying moments,”– on penalties to Japan in 2011, having been 1-0 and then 2-1 up – “had a terrible exit in the Rio Olympics, lost two other finals in a row, and it’s like: ‘What are you going to do? Wallow in it?’ I’m certainly not going to do that. I just get on with it. I tend to think that something better is coming. I don’t overanalyse; I don’t watch film [of matches] that much. Obviously, losing in 2011 hurt bad, because I felt that we shouldn’t have. But Japan had an amazing story, too. I’ve had so much success in my career; you always know a win is around the corner.”
This attitude is not just evidence-based, but also part of Rapinoe’s nature: “Clearly, I have some kind of big-moment gene that’s just natural; it has to be.” It is a question of upbringing, too. Rapinoe and her sister were raised with their three siblings in Redding, California, a small, conservative, largely working-class city in the north of the state, where her dad runs a construction company and her mum is a waitress. Had Rapinoe’s personality been slightly different, she might have had a tougher time growing up. (Her elder brother, Brian, who is Rapinoe’s great friend and ally, has had a long struggle with drug addiction and been in and out of prison for most of his adult life.)
If Rapinoe has grit, it comes in no small part from observing her mother’s example. Denise was the second eldest of eight kids, a child of alcoholics from a chaotic household. “Her parents died when she was younger than I am, she raised her younger sister and she has family into drugs. She has an extreme mental fortitude and toughness about her, while wearing it all quite lightly.”
There was a short period in Rapinoe’s teens when, contrary to every other stage of her life, she went through a phase of feeling unnerved. She wasn’t an unpopular kid. In Californian high-school culture, to be good at sports is to be guaranteed a certain level of popularity; as well as excelling at football, Rapinoe was a track and basketball star. Nonetheless, there were years when she felt out of place. “I was always really confident as a kid – had that sense of humour and lightness socially, but it did get awkward for a point. I didn’t really know what was going on and I thought eventually I’d come out of it. And then, once I realised I was gay, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s what it is!’ And then I was ready to go.”
She came out while studying at the University of Portland in Oregon. It was entirely untraumatic. “I didn’t struggle to come out. I thought: ‘Well, yeah, obviously, I’m gay.’ Everyone should have told me: it was just [obvious] for my whole childhood – hello?” There was no period of adjustment and no expectation that her life would get harder. Instead, she revelled in finding herself outside of the mainstream. “I thought: ‘This is awesome – and if people aren’t down with it I don’t really care to have them in my life, anyway.’ My parents said: ‘What are people going to say?’ and: ‘We don’t want things to be harder for you.’ But I don’t think I ever saw ways in which it was harder.”
By her early 20s, Rapinoe was well on her way to becoming a professional footballer. She had been playing for the national youth squad since her late teens and would be chosen for the national team while still at college. Her parents’ anxiety about her sexuality just didn’t figure. “At one point, my mom was telling all her work friends: ‘Oh, my daughters’ – because my sister is gay, too – ‘Oh, the twins are gay, blah blah blah.’ Meanwhile, their kids were dropping out of high school and having drug problems and doing all these crazy things, and they were like: ‘You don’t have any problems! All your kids are amazing, they’re doing sport and getting their college paid for and doing great.’” She bursts out laughing.
Good for you for not internalising these doubts, I say. “Oh, no! I was like: ‘You guys need to get on board or get out.’ We had some tense times, but it came down to, ‘You’re either in this or not.’”
Rapinoe’s pushback was instinctive, but I wonder if her political engagement comes in part from conditioning. Was it a political household? “No, not at all. I feel like I grew up with all of these lessons [about equality], but nothing was ever spoken. No language was ever put around it. Both of my parents should be really progressive – especially my mom – and I don’t get that they’re not. I’m always saying: ‘You guys should really be Democrats!’ But they’re not, so what’s happening?”
Perhaps Rapinoe is the expression of their sublimated liberalism, the things that her parents can’t say, I suggest. “I know. And I’m very similar to how they are, even though I think my dad voted for Trump and I’ll say: ‘I don’t get it. How are you simultaneously as proud as punch of me, and watching Fox News all the time, [who are doing] takedowns of your daughter?’ That’s why I’m like: ‘You guys need to go to therapy.’”
Do they fight now? “There’s been some major blow-ups. There’s definitely been some dust-ups.” At the same time, she says: “I’m very close to my family. It’s not like: ‘Ugh, I’m from a conservative town and I never talk to them any more.’ I talk to my parents all the time, every day. And I feel like I have seen progress and growth. I would love it if people understood you should never say racist things and be OK with gay people, or whatever it is. But, obviously, it doesn’t happen that quickly.”
It was Brian who introduced Rapinoe to football. She took to it almost immediately. After debuting for the national team in 2006, her professional career started in 2009, when she signed with the Chicago Red Stars. Over the next 10 years, she moved between clubs in Philadelphia, Boca Raton in Florida, Sydney and Seattle, before signing with the French side Lyon – arguably the strongest team in women’s football – in 2013. She returned to the US later that year to play for her current team, Reign, near Seattle.
If Rapinoe loves the performance aspect of playing, she is careful not to rely too heavily on crowd approval for her sense of wellbeing. “I really gain my energy from a very small and close-knit group of people – my mom, my twin sister, my best friends and Sue.” Sue Bird, Rapinoe’s girlfriend, is a WNBA basketball star and four-time Olympic champion whom Rapinoe met at the Rio Olympics. (The pair are a women’s sport power duo and last year became the first same-sex couple to pose – nude – for ESPN’s Body Issue.) “Of course I like the attention. Who doesn’t want 50,000 people going: ‘You’re awesome!’ But, in the same sense, I’m not a slave to it; it’s not the reason I do or say those things.”
Theatrics on the pitch and what Rapinoe calls the “travelling circus” are a commercial necessity in a game that is still making a case for itself against the backdrop of unequal investment from the US soccer authorities. Earlier this year, Rapinoe and her teammates filed a federal lawsuit against US Soccer, the sport’s governing body in the US, alleging “institutionalised gender discrimination”.
The pay structures for the men’s and women’s teams in the US are different, resulting in the average female player earning vastly less at club level than her male counterparts, while only a fraction of what goes into the men’s game is invested in women’s football. On the day we meet, a statement has been released from Carlos Cordeiro, the president of US Soccer, fighting back against the lawsuit and pointing out that, between 2010 and 2018, “US Soccer has paid our women’s national team more than our men’s national team” – $34.1m (£28.1m) versus $26.4m. Furthermore, he added, the women receive benefits including healthcare, which the men don’t.
What does she make of Cordeiro’s figures? “Well, I don’t think we’re counting up every cent over 10 years,” Rapinoe says, rolling her eyes. “I would like to know what the potential of the men’s contracts over the last 10 years would be compared with ours. We’ve probably won 85% of our games over 10 years. And the men have clearly not. And [he says] we’ve only been paid $8m more? We’ve been to three World Cup finals and won two of them. Won the gold medals.”
Later that day, a spokeswoman for the men’s national team joined the women’s team players to accuse Cordeiro of using false accounting to inflate the women’s salaries. So what now? Rapinoe looks very dry. “I don’t know. I’m excited to go to mediation, I guess.”
Rapinoe wants to encourage women to talk more openly about money. She is startlingly honest on the subject. I notice her gold Rolex and ask if she bought it as a victory gift; she smiles and says: “I did. I’ve been very intentional about talking about money recently. I think money for men is a sign of: ‘Oh, I’m the best,’ a marker of where you are in your sport. And for women everything is always kept secret – which I think only hurts us. I want to know what everyone else is making, and I’ll tell you: ‘I did this appearance for this amount of money; how much are you doing it for? How much are you getting paid by Nike?’ It’s a little bit awkward. But then even in my close friend group we’ve started talking about it and it takes the weird stigma out of it. Now I’m starting to make a lot more money, so I’m starting to splash a little bit more. So I have a $35,000 Rolex – people are going to know that.”
She is very aware of how this can sound and is keen to emphasise that, when it comes to “this whole equal pay thing, we’re not poor. We’re making a lot of money every year, so we need to find a way to talk about it. I’ve never had another job. I make at least half a million dollars a year. But that doesn’t mean that what we’re getting is equal.”
For Rapinoe, speaking out is simply the duty of everyone with a conscience. “How can you see all the shit that’s happening and not say anything? Everyone has the responsibility to do their part – I just happen to be naturally very confident, and it seems that people listen to me.” She smiles. “I’m kind of charming and I’m famous. So this is the way that I have to do it.”
Her straightforwardness is a large part of why people call her obnoxious. In different hands, this tone can seem smug, self-righteous or self-serving; she has been accused of all three. But in person it comes across as a kind of guileless unwillingness to circumvent the truth. Even when she praises herself, it is with a levity that pokes fun at what one can and can’t say.
It is very gratifying, she says, to say something stridently political and then watch the “needle move. I feel like we can see the world changing around us and we’re a huge part of that, effecting that change.” Can she give an example? “I feel like gay rights – we’ve been a huge part of that. You’re starting to see more players come out. There could be more – I mean, people are still being beat up for being gay. Part of it is just about talking about it all the time and starting to break down stereotypes. When I came out, people said: ‘OK, you have short hair, we sort of get it.’ But then with Ashlyn [Harris] and Ali [Krieger] coming out, and Kelley [O’Hara] kissing her girlfriend at the World Cup, stuff like that, the younger ones don’t even need to come out, they’re just out. They always were. So that’s been really cool.”
Rapinoe is very proud of the pay equity campaign, although she is realistic about why it has gained such traction. “We’re part of a much larger movement, and we’re a little more relatable than actresses who make millions of dollars – not that that makes [the inequality] any better.” A bigger part of it, however, is that “traditionally, we’re very cute and white. If you juxtapose [publicity given to Rapinoe and her teammates] with [the way in which] the Women’s Basketball Association has been fighting for all these things – but they’re gay and black and nobody wants to talk about that.”
In the end, it comes down to a question of space: the politics, the celebrations, the fight for equal pay – even the pink hair. The night before Rapinoe left with the team for the World Cup, she announced to her girlfriend that she was going to dye her hair pink, a last-minute decision that, if it backfired, left no time for recovery. Bird, who is more of a worrier than Rapinoe, urged caution. “Her thing was: ‘Is this really what you want to do the day before you’re going to be on the biggest stage of your life?’” Rapinoe grins. “I said: ‘That’s exactly why I want to do it.’”
Of course, it is not about the hair. Rapinoe understands the symbolism and she understands the stakes. “I feel as if women are socialised not to take up space and men are. The team were called arrogant for our celebrations – for even planning a celebration and thinking we were going to win. Well, of course you think you’re going to win – that’s the whole point of the game.” She looks incredulous. “You can be famous, and loud, and boisterous, and [stand] for good stuff, too, and do it all. You don’t have to be this toiling woman all the time. No one’s here for that any more.”
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