Megan Rapinoe will leave lasting legacy with USWNT, fight for equality

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Few athletes have met the moment like Megan Rapinoe.

The U.S. women do not have a fourth World Cup title without her, nor gold (London) and bronze (Tokyo) medals from the Olympics. She, and Abby Wambach, saved the USWNT from making its earliest exit ever at a major international tournament in the quarterfinals of the 2011 World Cup.

It is what Rapinoe has done off the field, however, that has transformed this exceptional athlete into an icon whose impact will continue long after she retires. As it was with Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King before her, there is the world as it existed before Megan Rapinoe and the world as it exists now, because of what she’s done and the stands she’s taken.

Gender equity, LGBTQ rights and racial equality — gains have been made in these areas and others because of her willingness to use her platform.

“For me and for this team, it's always been the vibe of leaving everything better than where you found it,” Rapinoe told USA TODAY Sports last month. “Undeniably we've changed the game and been a part of these multi movements that are all kind of happening at the same time and have left the world in a better place.

“I think female athletes deserve a lot of credit for what we fought for, whether it's Black Lives Matter, police brutality, trans rights in sports, women's rights in sports, bodily autonomy, gay rights in sports, equal pay, landmark contract negotiations,” she added. “None of this was given to us. We didn't get the benefit of our potential or what we could do. We had to fight for everything and prove it double every single time.

“So I think being a part of that landscape and being one of the figures in that landscape is what I'm most proud of.”

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Megan Rapinoe is not most people

Having the president of your own country, arguably the most powerful person in the world, attack you and then sustain that attack for weeks, inflaming millions of his supporters to amplify the contempt and abuse, would be enough to send most people sideways.

Rapinoe, however, is not most people. The more vitriol directed at her during the 2019 World Cup, the more she thrived. She scored in every knockout-round game she played in, and had the only U.S. goals in both the round-of-16 game against Spain and the quarterfinals against France.

It was after her second goal against France that she delivered the pose that launched a million memes, going to the corner of the field and throwing her arms out wide while lifting her chin, as if to ask, “Are you not entertained?”

Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot during the World Cup in 2019.
Megan Rapinoe celebrates after scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot during the World Cup in 2019.

Which, to Rapinoe, is what all the noise at the World Cup was.

“With the Trump stuff − I don't think Trump is a serious person. I never thought Trump was a serious person, so I also was like, you're actually just a fan. You're obviously watching all the games and following everything,” Rapinoe said.

“I mean, it's serious. It’s the president of the United States hate tweeting his own citizens and hate tweeting his own team during the most important event of their lives, which is just pretty trash behavior,” she added. “But I think for us, it was like we were already tight. We had already been through so much as a group.”

As had Rapinoe herself.

Megan Rapinoe was an unapologetic leader off the field

Though it had long been known to her family and friends, Rapinoe announced before the 2012 London Olympics that she is gay. That kind of announcement now would barely merit a shrug, but back then, it was, if not seismic, hugely significant.

She had an endorsement deal with Nike, noteworthy for a female soccer player. The Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage was still three years away and, in 2016, a gunman would open fire in an LGBTQ nightclub, killing 49 people and wounding 53 more.

There were gay athletes and celebrities, sure. But few were as proudly open as Rapinoe, and her unapologetic visibility gave others – athletes and ordinary folks, alike – permission to be their true selves.

By 2016, Rapinoe had established herself as one of the USWNT’s most important and popular players. It was her cross Wambach thundered home with a header to snatch victory from defeat against Brazil in 2011. She further endeared herself to fans during that tournament by grabbing an on-field mic and belting out, “Born in the USA.”

In London, she scored in extra time of overtime to send the USWNT into the gold-medal game, where she had an assist. She was named to the All-Star Team at the 2015 World Cup after finishing with two goals and two assists, including one in the Final.

None of that, however, protected Rapinoe from being blackballed in the fall of 2016, after she became the first high-profile white athlete to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. She would be left off USWNT rosters for almost seven months before being recalled the following April.

Rather than being cowed, Rapinoe persisted in being what she’s called “a walking protest.” When the USWNT sued U.S. Soccer for gender discrimination in March 2019, three months before the World Cup began, she was one of the lead plaintiffs along with Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn.

The lawsuit was arduous and often ugly. But it resulted in a $24 million settlement for the players as well as a landmark contract that guarantees the USWNT equal pay, including an even split of World Cup prize money with the U.S. men.

“Growing up, seeing the Pinoes, the Alexes speaking about things completely not soccer-related, using their platform to create change and to talk about things that matter was really moving to me,” Sophia Smith said. “Because you don’t see a lot of female athletes with that big of a platform using it in the way that they’re using it.”

The public support for the USWNT’s equal pay fight attracted sponsors and investors to the women’s game and inspired players in other countries to demand their worth. It is not a stretch to say Rapinoe has helped bring about a sea change, not just in women’s soccer but women’s sports in general.

On Wednesday, FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced this World Cup will break even and generate roughly $500 million – no small thing considering this is the first time the women’s tournament has been its own commercial entity rather than an afterthought tossed in on deals for the men’s event.

“It’s incredible to see where the game is now,” Rapinoe said. “I do feel like we're sort of in another era of progress in women's sports. Obviously there's still a lot to fight for and I don't want to pretend like we're past inequality and discrimination. We definitely aren't.

“But I do feel like the sport is in a much different place and (this World Cup) is sort of a welcoming party to everyone who is years and years and years late to it.”

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An epic career coming to an end

Before the USWNT left for New Zealand, Rapinoe announced she will retire at the end of the NWSL season. This World Cup is her last major tournament with the U.S. women.

“Obviously I’m not going to be playing at the next one. My God. That would be a whole scene,” Rapinoe said.

She turned 38 on July 5. Though she’s still starting for OL Reign, her club team, and is capable of going 90 minutes, Rapinoe will play a reduced role for the USWNT at this World Cup. Which is fine. She remains one of the very best in the world at set pieces, a skill that could come in handy late in games.

She’s equally prized for her leadership, particularly on such a young U.S. team. Of the 23 players on the World Cup roster, 12 are playing in their first major international tournament.

“She brings a sense of humor and lightness but intensity and empathy,” Kelley O’Hara said. “She’s one of a kind. There’s never been one like her, there’s probably never going to be one close to her.

“It’s sad to think about this being her last,” O’Hara said, choking up, “but she’s done such incredible things. For this team and for the world.”

Megan Rapinoe 'honored' to represent USA

Rapinoe’s critics, the former president included, have mischaracterized her as being unpatriotic. Unaware. Ungrateful.

She is none of those things.

Rapinoe has said, often, that she feels fortunate to live in the United States. As both a woman and a lesbian, she knows she wouldn’t have nearly the same opportunities elsewhere. That her life would likely have been much smaller if she’d grown up almost anywhere else.

“I feel so honored to be able to have represented this country and this federation for so many years,” Rapinoe said. “It’s truly been the greatest thing that I’ve ever done. Something I’m so grateful for.”

But loving your country doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to its flaws.

Elite athletes don’t stop grinding when they reach the top. They double down, working even harder and looking for ways to get even better. This is what Rapinoe is doing when she challenges the country she loves to do better, for all of its citizens but particularly for those who remain marginalized.

She wants everyone to have the chances and advantages she’s had, and won’t stop pushing until those cherished ideals promised by our founding fathers are fully realized.

“I think our ultimate mission is to keep evolving, keep progressing, keep throwing our ladders down and bringing as many people along with us that we possibly can,” she said. “That’s the goal, to use (soccer) to make the world a better place. I’ve said that a lot.

“Sometimes it feels corny,” Rapinoe added, “but I feel we all have a responsibility to make the world a better place in whatever way we can be most impactful in doing that.”

Rapinoe’s contributions to the USWNT have been invaluable. Her contributions to society even more so.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Megan Rapinoe will leave lasting legacy with USWNT when she retires