Megan Rapinoe, the most important US soccer player of the last 20 years, is retiring. The 38-year-old with a goal-scoring flair as striking as her kaleidoscopic coif announced that she will be saying goodbye after the 2023 World Cup. In telling the world now, Rapinoe has created the possibility of a dramatic sendoff, driving even more interest in what will be a rollicking tournament.
Rapinoe’s two-decade career is nearly peerless. Her 199 career games with the US national team, her 63 international goals—many of them scored in unbearably tense moments—will be remembered for as long as people take the pitch. Her 2019 was particularly epic. That year, she won the Ballon d’Or as the FIFA women’s player of the year, scored six goals at the World Cup, and won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer and the Golden Ball for top player.
But Rapinoe became widely known as far more than a soccer player in 2016 when she became the first white athlete to take a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with the protests against racism and police violence staged by Colin Kaepernick. Drawing fire away from the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Rapinoe explained why she felt the need to act:
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”
In 2020, I asked Rapinoe about why she took that knee, and she told me:
I don’t think I was debating it in my mind that much. That 2016 summer was wild, horrific [with the viral videos of the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile]. We get past the Olympics, come home and very quickly Colin starts kneeling. I was listening to everything that he was saying, and then everything that everyone else was saying in response. Very quickly it was clear that nobody in power was wanting to hear what Colin was saying. That’s why they’re saying all this stuff, conflating patriotism, military, and the flag. I was thinking that we all have a part to play. I feel like I’ve stood up for my own rights, but I’ve also asked people to stand up for my rights. It was my turn.
Rapinoe also spoke to me about why it’s important for white people to approach anti-racist work with humility and intentionality. “If somebody’s getting arrested, you should get arrested too. That’s your gauge,” she said.
“swipe left below to view more authors”Swipe →
If somebody’s getting beat up, you should be right there getting beat up, too. I think that our role in this is tremendous, because we benefit so much, and we have benefited so much, and there’s yet to be a true national reckoning and acknowledgement and admission to what we did in the past and what we continue to do. Until we have that—and I don’t think we get that without white people being very involved and committing to that—we’re going to have unrest.
Speaking during the summer of struggle after the police murder of George Floyd, she finished her interview with me by saying simply, “This is the uprising that we need.”
Two months after Kaepernick—and then Rapinoe—first took a knee, Donald Trump was sent to the White House. Instead of retreating into despair, Rapinoe became what she later called, “a walking protest” against the president. She called him “sexist,” “misogynistic,” and “racist.” Amid the 2019 World Cup, when the US women captured the imagination of the country with ratings that squashed every sport save NFL football, Rapinoe was asked about her team visiting Trump after the tournament, and she replied, with a hint of annoyance, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.”
Her comment sent Trump into a social-media tantrum, but what could have been an ugly distraction inspired several of her teammates to have her back and also refuse any possible White House invite. And Rapinoe responded to Trump by scoring goals and striking a pose both defiant and joyful. Rapinoe is one of those radicals who remind me of Howard Zinn’s description of Eugene Debs: “Fierce in his convictions, kind and compassionate in his personal relations.”
Rapinoe distinguished herself in recent months by standing proudly with the transgender community in the face of efforts to have them banned from sports and erased from public life. There is a great deal of pressure on cisgender women athletes—from a coterie of very prominent cisgender women in the sports world—to call for the exclusion of trans athletes from organized athletics. Rapinoe says the opposite. “I’m 100 percent supportive of trans inclusion,” she told Time.
We’re talking about kids. We’re talking about people’s lives. [Kids] are committing suicide, because they are being told that they’re gross and different and evil and sinful and they can’t play sports with their friends that they grew up with. Not to mention trying to take away health care. I think it’s monstrous. I would also encourage everyone out there who is afraid someone’s going to have an unfair advantage over their kid to really take a step back and think what are we actually talking about here. We’re talking about people’s lives. I’m sorry, your kid’s high school volleyball team just isn’t that important. It’s not more important than any one kid’s life.
But the crown jewel of what I am calling the Rapinoe Era is the victory for equal pay in soccer, which women athletes had long fought for. While Rapinoe should be seen as a link in the chain, she was an especially strong one. After her World Cup heroics, she used her newly gained cultural capital as one of the five original plaintiffs in their legal battle. After the victory, Rapinoe told ESPN, “There’s no real justice in this other than this never happening again. With the settlement of the working conditions and this settlement, which is contingent upon a CBA that will have equal pay going forward, there’s no other way to look at it than just a monumental win for women’s sports and women’s soccer, in particular.” Winning equal pay on such a high-profile stage was historic and was embraced not merely by the soccer world but by the broader labor movement.
Rapinoe, of course, isn’t going anywhere. At 38 years old, her journey, in many respects, is just beginning. Thankfully, she brings to that journey a love for life and a passion for social and economic justice. The Rapinoe superpower is that she is restless unless she is turning anger into action. I can’t predict the future, but I suspect it will involve people inspiring Rapinoe, and then she will, again, return the favor—inspiring many more to be brave and fearless in the face of injustice.