Megan Rapinoe's Long Fight for Equality

In Depth
Megan Rapinoe's Long Fight for Equality
Illustration:Elena Scotti (Image by Penguin Press

Before Megan Rapinoe was a World Cup-winning, gold medal-earning, equal pay-defending, marriage equality-advocating superstar who also happened to play soccer, she was a largely unknown athlete from Redding, California, trying to make heads or tails of her future and her own sexuality. Rapinoe, who played soccer from childhood with her twin sister Rachael, was thrust into the national spotlight in 2016, when she knelt during the playing of the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick—who, unlike Rapinoe, never worked as a professional athlete again. Rapinoe’s memoir, One Life, is not so much the story of Rapinoe’s journey from birth to soccer stardom but the story of how she came to take a knee, tracing a political awakening that began long before that career- and league-changing game.

Long before the US Soccer Federation banned kneeling in response to its biggest rising star taking action, Megan Rapinoe was a young athlete in California, growing up in a town where local youth soccer programs for girls weren’t as established as they are now. “In my entire history of playing, I have never dominated a team like I did that team of small boys in the early 1990s,” she writes of the time she spent playing on her local under-8 boys’ team, which she and her sister were invited to join before her father eventually started a girls’ team. Tracing her early involvement in the sport, Megan also provides a brief history of the somewhat stop-and-start beginnings of professional women’s soccer in the United States. The Women’s United Soccer Association grew out of the excitement over the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup-winning team, launching in 2001, but WUSA folded after three seasons. Rapinoe, who had already made appearances with the national team, would start her professional career in Chicago in the next iteration of professional women’s soccer, the Women’s Professional Soccer league, where she was paid $32,000 a year, with a second salary for playing on the national team. This league would also fold.

But the meat of the book is Rapinoe’s journey from simply a (very good) soccer player to a woman with a platform so strong that President-elect Joe Biden and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have both taken the time to speak with her. As she tells it, Megan’s political awakening began with her brother, Brian, who spent most of Rapinoe’s adolescence struggling with addiction and cycling in and out of the prison system. Brian’s experiences shaped Megan’s understanding of fairness, particularly as it related to criminal justice. She writes:

There is another truth about drug addicts, and by extension those who serve time in prison: While, as human beings, they are valued by society at nothing their, symbolic value to the system is huge. For “us” to be “good,” “they” must be “bad”—and not just bad, but irredeemably so. It’s classic divide and rule and makes rehabilitation almost impossible. It also ensures that those entering the system are out beyond the reach of our common humanity.

Rapinoe’s consciousness was further shaped by the moment in college when, for the first time in her life, she realized she was gay. Megan’s very public advocacy for same-sex marriage rights often put her at odds with her teammates.“I looked down the aircraft at all of the other gay players, most of them older than me,” she writes. “Why am I not out? Why are we all not out?” It was this fight that would prepare her for her most public match yet: Rapinoe v. United States Soccer Federation.

In 2012, the collective bargaining agreement between the United States Women’s National Team and the United States Soccer Federation was up for re-negotiation, and the players wanted more money. At the time, Rapinoe writes, “the basic salary being offered by the USSF was still roughly $70,000 a year,” with a bonus structure that was pitiful compared to the men’s national team. “If the men’s and women’s teams each played twenty friendlies in a year, the men earn on average $263,320; the women, $99,000.” Heading into the Olympics, the USWNT was ranked first in the world in their sport, and the team wanted this ranking to translate to dollar signs. “If our success after the World Cup had taught me anything, it was that we weren’t a team, we were a multi-million dollar business.”

But the players were not present in the room during contract negotiations, and the new CBA was insufficient. The lack of pay increase and change on the bonus structure lit a fire under the team’s collective asses: “Next time we wouldn’t be so forgiving.” Since that last CBA, Rapinoe and several other national team players have sued the USSF for gender-based pay discrimination, the results of which are still pending.

But what really strikes me about the book, as a fan of the author and the sport, is how much it reads like a heartwarming farewell. Since her 2019 World Cup win, Rapinoe has been noticeably absent from the pitch and has not yet appeared at the 2020 Olympic training camp with the rest of her USWNT teammates. Rapinoe was called up to camp in December when the roster was announced but opted out over injury concerns. She also missed the NWSL Challenge Cup, choosing instead to remain quarantined with her now-fiancé Sue Bird before both entered the WNBA bubble, where Bird and the Seattle Storm went on to become champions. Again.

If careers came with checklists, Rapinoe has certainly ticked every expected box and then some, making retirement a likely next step in her life. Soccer is an all-consuming sport and the competition to make it onto one of the world’s most desirable teams is cutthroat; “In a country of 330 million people, only 23 women get to make a living the way we do, and you need to be a gladiator just to get on the team,” Rapinoe writes. And while soccer has been Rapinoe’s life since she was a child, she knows there’s more waiting for her off the field.

One Life is a memoir of what Rapinoe has done with not just with her athletic ability but also her life more broadly and her white privilege specifically. “The platform I’ve been given is a result of other aspects of my life, including the way I look, what I represent, and the associations that come with the sport I play. A small, white, female soccer player lands differently in the press than say. a six-foot0four-inch Black football player with an afro,” she wrote comparing her experience of protesting to that of Kaepernick.

Throughout the book, she repeatedly asks the reader, directly and indirectly, what are they going to do with their own one life. It is both an existential and a challenge Rapinoe poses to her fans. “We all have the same resource, our one precious life, made up of the decisions we make every day. Here I’m telling the story of how I made my decisions…In telling it, I hope I’m also asking a question: What are you going to do?”

And while Rapinoe makes no allusions to retirement any time soon in the book, it’s hard to imagine how she can top herself any further. She’s already bagged several gold medals, television cameos, a popular show on Instagram, her own apparel line, a cannabis business, and several sponsorship deals. What’s her next move? the book provides a clue: “As an adult, I felt something dormant in me twitching to life: political anger.”

The opportunities for Rapinoe to use her platform to harness her political anger are endless, especially given her rise in popularity during the presidential election. But Rapinoe understands that the biggest and most profound impact she can have is the one she experiences most intimately, recognizing her own privilege, and teaching these devils that they need to see it for themselves. “I honestly think many white people don’t realize they are wandering around with a four-hundred-year baked-in advantage. I know I didn’t,” she writes. “The very fact that I’m addressing you now, in a book I received lots of money for and began writing at the end of a year when I won every possible award, isn’t simply because I’m a good soccer player or as athletes love to say, because I work really hard. You know who else works hard? Everyone.”

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