Megan Rapinoe is no longer a soccer player. She is now an activist who sometimes plays soccer as her side gig.
Her transition is underscored by her new autobiography, “One Life.” Or that’s kind of what it feels like. Because the cover, a black-and-white portrait, doesn’t make any allusions to her occupation, to the vehicle of her fame. Judge the book by its cover and there’s no telling that Rapinoe, clad in what looks like a dark t-shirt that reveals a few of her tattoos, plays soccer. In that sense, it contrasts sharply with the memoirs of other United States women’s national team stars, whose book covers either show them in their uniforms, in action or wearing some kind of sportswear.
Because Rapinoe’s book, at heart, isn’t about her soccer career. It isn’t the predictable tome of hard work and good fortune and adversity overcome and supportive parents and doting coaches that all accrued to two World Cup titles and her 2019 sweep of the World Cup Golden Ball, Golden Boot, and the two rival prizes for the world’s best player of the year.
All of that is in there, in one way or another, but it doesn’t constitute the spine of the narrative. Rapinoe, in fact, almost seems to recoil from the triteness of those expected arcs — “You know who else works hard?” she asks at one point, rhetorically. “Everyone.”
Instead, all of that is adornment and context to the larger story: her social awakening.
She went on a journey that began with her kneeling during the national anthem at a National Women’s Soccer League game in 2016, and then on the national team, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s protest against policy brutality. A journey that brought her to a present life in which she works primarily as a social justice advocate who spends much of her time giving speeches, talking on panels or hosting HBO specials on societal issues with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Hasan Minhaj and Nikole Hannah-Jones.
There is certainly juicy stuff in the book, in which she seems to enjoy punching through the fourth wall by admitting, for instance, that, through the book, she is “totally cashing in to capitalize on the moment. I’m just doing it for what I hope are reasons that aren’t exclusively seedy.”
Rapinoe writes about being frozen out by then-national team head coach Jill Ellis for months after her kneeling protest. U.S. Soccer has always said it was a fitness issue, even though it did summarily pass a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem, which it might as well have labeled the “Rapinoe Rule.”
And Rapinoe discloses a relationship with fellow national team star Abby Wambach early in the former’s national team career. It was Wambach, of course, whom Rapinoe later fed for the famous 122th-minute equalizer against Brazil in the semifinal of the 2011 Women’s World Cup, which avoided elimination and kept the Americans on track for the final they would lose to Japan. As Rapinoe recalls thinking at the time, while putting her head down to dispatch a soaring cross, “B****, you’d better be there.”
But after the compelling pages of Rapinoe’s unlikely rise from an eventful childhood in Redding, California to international stardom, much of the book is devoted to her new purpose.
After she became, incomprehensibly, the first women’s national teamer to publicly come out of the closet in 2012 — “Which is hilarious given the number of gays on the team” — the reaction had been muted. That’s why she felt blindsided by the backlash to her kneeling protest.
Yet it was this confrontation that forced Rapinoe to consider why people felt so strongly, one way or the other, about what she had done. “There is a particular kind of baffled outrage reserved by white people for other white people they consider to be ‘betraying’ their race, and that week I felt the full force of it,” she writes.
From there, she also became vocal about white privilege, mass incarceration of drug offenders like her own brother, and the implicit expectations of women. The latter is a particularly poignant point, because there is an entrenched yet unwritten code of conduct on the women’s national team that prescribes demure, grateful and somehow inspirational behavior.
“As a professional female athlete I can’t — or I’m not supposed to — curse in public, talk too much about politics, wild out after winning, suggest I might be really good at what I do, or admit to being interested in money,” Rapinoe writes. “Men play sports because they love it and want to get rich; women are there for the purity of the game.”
But by doing all of these things overtly and unapologetically, Rapinoe has also transcended her ascribed role as a soccer star. No soccer player in the United States, man or woman, has come to be defined for the things they did away from the field (or just before a game started, at any rate) the way Rapinoe has. She is possibly the first woman in any team sport to truly transcend her game to become a larger figure with a broad mandate to chime in on whatever issues compel her — a trick not even fully pulled off by her fiancée and WNBA star Sue Bird.
Rapinoe is no longer bound by the constraints of athletes, particularly female ones. Whether it is a ceiling or a box, she has smashed through of it. So, fittingly, she ends her book with a call to action for change. “Everything is changing,” she writes. “It’s happening now. And it’s just the beginning. Let’s go — really, let’s go.”
Megan Rapinoe’s evolution from a soccer player into something else entirely is complete.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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