As the USWNT marches into the World Cup Final this weekend, the team’s star forward and co-captain Megan Rapinoe has filled headlines with her back-and-forth exchanges with President Trump, turning attention away from the team’s on-the-field victories to polarizing ideological battles.
Controversy erupted after Rapinoe publicized her contempt of President Trump several days ago. When asked if she was excited about visiting the White House, as many championship winning teams do, Rapinoe responded, “I’m not going to the f***ing White House. No. I’m not going to the White House.” Rapinoe is not the first athlete to reject the prospect of visiting the White House. Basketball superstars Lebron James and Stephen Curry both voiced that they were unwilling to go to the White House during last year’s NBA finals. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles were disinvited after players voiced their opposition of the NFL’s insistence that players stand during the anthem. These players, however, were not representing the country at an international tournament. This makes Rapinoe’s situation unique.
Rapinoe, who identifies as a member of the LGBT community, has protested against social injustice in the United States prior to this year’s World Cup by kneeling during the National Anthem at two USWNT home games.1 After her comments about the president, some people took to social media to voice support for the athlete, while others expressed that she should not represent the U.S. at the international stage.
Why would we support Rapinoe? Let’s start with the sport itself. One of the most captivating things about the “beautiful game” is the way it can unite people. You can travel around the world and speak the shared language of the sport: football, futbol, soccer. Much like a shared faith, it can allow you to connect with people from completely different cultures and life histories. The World Cup is a world-wide celebration of that unity that soccer creates. It provides a spark of hope that ignites a fire to warm entire nations. That experience of hope irresistibly draws people into its embrace. Strangers become friends, enemies become allies, and differences are set aside in the pursuit of a common goal: lifting the trophy. That is why we can support Megan Rapinoe, a fierce competitor whose fiery playing style inspires her team to win.
So why are people upset at Rapinoe? There’s a reason that Rapinoe’s off-the-field words have unleashed controversy. She is introducing divisive political rhetoric in the midst of what should be a time of nation-wide unity. As every person knows, U.S. politics and culture is fragmented, and it seems to grow more and more so every day. We are approaching another election season that promises 24-hour news cycles of dirty laundry, personal smears, and news spin. It’s hard to get on Twitter without battling micro-bouts of desolation and despair. In the midst of that, we look to sports as a buoy of joy and creativity, something the USWNT provides in droves. Then Rapinoe dragged U.S. soccer into the heart of political polarization. The dirty laundry is now hanging in the middle of the soccer field—personal smears and news spin envelopes the beautiful game in its chokehold.
That is not to say that the USWNT is supposed to ignore the realities their fans face, such as political and social injustice. The team itself is waging an ongoing legal battle to earn the same amount of money as their male counterparts. Simply put, the USWNT are a fighting squad. They have the right to fight to earn equal wages. The fighting spirit is burning in the hearts of these women. At its best, that fire draws people together.
Which brings us back Rapinoe’s comments regarding the White House. To be clear, Rapinoe does not need to be agreeable and silent. She has the right to her opinion and to express it publicly. But the country would benefit if the USWNT could rise above the political muck that oozes through every American television screen. Accepting an invitation to the White House does not mean endorsing the president’s policies. If anything, it is a chance to voice personal concerns face-to-face. It is a chance to embrace Pope Francis’s call to build a culture of encounter.
Athletes influence more people than almost every other group of people. They can be powerful co-creators of a culture of encounter. A culture that recognizes the dignity of each person. A culture that fosters unity through a desire to understand. Rapinoe knows that she is admired and listened to by millions of people. That is power, and that power comes with responsibility. Does that mean she has to support injustice? Of course not. Does that mean she has to like President Trump? Of course not. But all of us, including Trump and Rapinoe, should be willing to lay down arms and get out of our deep ideological trenches in which we find comfort. There’s middle ground between those two trenches, and it doesn’t have to be a battlefield.
Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Joel Solomon.