Megan Rapinoe stands her ground in cross-Atlantic spat with President Trump

Dan WetzelColumnist

PARIS — A red, white and blue “USA” patch was printed across her chest, a relaxed smile stretched across her face.

Megan Rapinoe is in the middle of a modern-day, cross-Atlantic spat with Donald Trump – an old behind-the-scenes video resurfacing on social media being met with a fresh series of presidential tweets.

It’s the kind of spotlight that can rattle a person, yet apparently not a person such as Megan Rapinoe.

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She looked as unconcerned and unfazed as she generally does on the soccer pitch. She didn't appear upset that Trump was focused on her. She tried to walk a thin line of both standing her ground while attempting to not escalate the confrontation.

“I’ll just address it head on and then we can get to the soccer questions,” Rapinoe said at a press conference here Thursday in advance of Friday’s (3 p.m. ET) U.S. quarterfinal game against France.

Rapinoe has been an unapologetic critic of Trump and the current state of American social justice. For a stretch, she followed Colin Kaepernick’s lead and knelt during the national anthem (she now "respectfully" stands, per U.S. Soccer rules, but declines to sing along with the anthem). She has rarely shied away from speaking out, sometimes in bombastic and confrontational ways, on any topic she chooses.

A months-old video of her saying “I’m not going to the [expletive] White House” if the U.S. won the World Cup re-emerged this week. It came from a video taping of a spring promotional photo shoot. (Back in 2015, Rapinoe, along with her World Cup champion teammates, happily traveled to Washington to visit Barack Obama’s White House. This time, she sees things differently.)

That got Trump to tweet that she should focus on winning first (he wrongly thought the comment was made during the tournament) and that she should respect the flag, the anthem and the White House itself.

Back and forth and forth and back. Rapinoe’s fans cheered Rapinoe. Trump’s fans cheered Trump. Both had the right to speak their mind and confront the other. All’s fair in the political theatre. This is America, after all.

Megan Rapinoe met with the media on Thursday, and she did not back down from her thoughts on President Donald Trump or a potential White House visit. (Reuters)
Megan Rapinoe met with the media on Thursday, and she did not back down from her thoughts on President Donald Trump or a potential White House visit. (Reuters)

And so Rapinoe looked somewhat amused as political Twitter burned all around her. She doesn’t appear scared of Trump. She doesn’t appear to expect Trump to be scared of her. It’s all a good knock, you could say.

“I stand by the comments I made about not wanting to go to the White House with the exception of the expletive,” she joked. “My mom would be very upset about that.”

She laughed. Then she spoke of the passion and pride she has in the platform her talent and work as a soccer player has given her.

When Rapinoe speaks these days, she, an openly gay 33-year-old, originally from little Redding, California, way up near the nowhere’s land of the Oregon border, is significant enough to attract no less than the attention of the President of the United States.

“Hopefully [we are] using [that platform] for good and leaving the game in a better place and hopefully the world in a better place,” Rapinoe said. “I don’t think I would want to go. And I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having it co-opted by an administration that does not feel the same way and fight for the same things that we fight for.”

She declined to cite specifics on Thursday, preferring to focus on the game. She’s expressed plenty of them in the past. Her views on LBGT rights, women’s rights and other subjects do not mesh with the social conservatism Trump has taken up since he became a politician.

So she embraces her very American right to sound off on the guy in charge. And the guy in charge embraces his very American right to sound off right back. Maybe in the past presidents didn’t get in fights with athletes, but Trump does things his own way. It’s 2019. This isn't new.

It’s fair to say Rapinoe knew what was coming and had no problem when it came.

“I think naturally as a person, I’m confident and sure of myself,” she said.

She said she senses no issues with her teammates, a sentiment backed by her coach, Jill Ellis.

“We all support Megan,” Ellis said. “She knows that. We have each other’s backs in there.”

President Donald Trump said he would invite the U.S. women's national team to the White House whether it wins the World Cup or not. (AP)
President Donald Trump said he would invite the U.S. women's national team to the White House whether it wins the World Cup or not. (AP)

Mostly, Rapinoe said, everyone just wants to get to the game, a quarterfinal clash between the two tournament favorites and a night in Paris that everyone has been anticipating since the FIFA brackets came out last December.

“I am not worried about destabilizing the dressing room,” Rapinoe said. “We have a very strong dressing room. We’re very open with each other, obviously everyone knows who I am. I didn’t make the comments at a press conference here; they were made months ago and are just resurfacing.

“I think if anything it fires everyone up even more,” she continued.

There’s too much at stake, Rapinoe said. Women’s soccer has come a long way but it remains a sport where at the most elite levels truly big games remain rare. There is the once-every-four-year World Cup and the once-every-four-year Olympics and nothing else that really compares. Professional leagues are still in the embryonic stage.

Games like this, evenly matched competition with huge stakes and the soccer world watching, is what gets you through all the lonely practice sessions and conditioning drills and sacrifices. Rapinoe isn’t making millions as a pro athlete. This is still about the game.

She said she’d continue her activism after the World Cup, as always. As for Trump, whatever. This will continue or it won’t. She looked like she didn’t care either way.

The rest is just the absurdity of modern debate – some Trump fans now vowing to root not for the United States on Friday but … France, of all places. And Rapinoe being asked if scrapping with Trump, who is deeply unpopular with the French, actually increased her popularity over here.

She could only smile.

“I think I was popular in France before this,” she laughed.

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