She won the World Cup, was player of the tournament and top scorer, then stole the show at the ticker tape parade with both her swagger and her speech – but Megan Rapinoe is also a polarising figure who inspires anger as well as adoration. Why?
The summer so far has belonged to the 33-year-old co-captain of the US women’s soccer team who scored six goals as the reigning world champions retained their crown.
She’s been on talk shows and magazine covers, and children across America – girls and boys alike – are out practicing their football skills, dreaming of becoming the next Megan Rapinoe. But just a day after that triumph in France, while Rapinoe and her teammates were probably still partying, public posters of the star back in her homeland were being vandalised.
Homophobic slurs were scrawled across them, and New York police say they are investigating a possible hate crime. Online, where her goal celebrations and dance moves sparked joyous memes, you will also find comments denigrating her attitude and activism, some even questioning her patriotism.
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One conservative commentator insists she is actually a bad role model for girls. “They look up to her and see not a disciplined, respectful sports icon, but a groundlessly bitter, petulant celebrity who is totally ungrateful for the opportunities she’s had,” wrote Brad Polumbo. While most critics say their dislike for the athlete has nothing to do with her sexuality, the kind of American hero that Rapinoe represents – strong, gay and female – is clearly triggering to some.
“Nobody knows what to do with Megan”
In a viral video filmed by a teammate, Rapinoe was seen yelling “I deserve this” into the camera before taking a swig of champagne aboard the open-top bus driving through Manhattan. Such a display of unabashed confidence is not customary for women, says University of California Berkeley history professor Bonnie Morris. Women are traditionally expected to “put themselves down and be modest”.
“Women are very careful not to seem too assertive or knowledgeable because it’s taken as a kind of cockiness that is a turn-off to men,” she explains. However, the openly gay athlete does not appear fussed about how she comes across to men. When Rapinoe posed confidently with her head held high after one of her World Cup goals, the image took off on the internet with many people praising her confidence.
Others, though, called her egotistical.
“Nobody knows what to do with Megan because she’s attractive, smart and a fantastic athlete,” says Ms Morris. “She’s earned the right to present herself as capable, but still people don’t want to let her show pride.”
There is a double standard, she says.
Male athletes can be brash and pound their chests without being criticised, adds Ms Morris, but because Rapinoe is a pink-haired lesbian willing to take on President Trump, she is startling people who haven’t encountered anyone like her before.
An athlete and an activist
The winger with an eye for goal was not only the star of the US team on the pitch, she was the very vocal voice for it off the field too. She’s demanded equal pay for the women’s team – but has also used her platform to speak out on social justice issues, including some of the cultural flashpoints where American public opinion is so deeply divided.
She was one of the first prominent US athletes to kneel during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. In France, she stood for the anthem before matches but refused to put her hand over her heart.
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During the World Cup, a six-month-old video resurfaced of Rapinoe saying: “I’m not going to the [expletive] White House”. Winning sports teams are often invited to the White House, an honour Rapinoe accepted after the US team won the 2015 Fifa Women’s World Cup when President Barack Obama was still in office.
The current US president did not take kindly to Rapinoe’s comments. Donald Trump tweeted at her during the tournament that she should win first before making such a claim.
And win she did. Two days later, Rapinoe scored two goals against France in a 2-1 quarterfinal victory, and another in the World Cup final itself.
But it hasn’t been enough for some critics.
“She’s actually kind of an awful person,” wrote Brad Polumbo in the Washington Examiner. “Rapinoe has soccer skills for sure, but her entitled, flippant, and unpatriotic attitude is the epitome of first-world privilege.” Marc Thiessen, writing in the New York Post, said she shouldn’t be protesting against the stars and stripes while wearing the stars and stripes.
“Megan Rapinoe is a great – but needlessly, selfishly divisive – athlete,” he concluded. And even at the moment of triumph some conservatives on Twitter focused on what they perceived to be her disrespect for the flag in the way she handled it during post-match celebrations on the pitch.
‘Love more, hate less’
“I think I’m particularly and uniquely and very deeply American,” Rapinoe said when asked what it was like to play for the national team. “If we want to talk about the ideals that we stand for, the song and the anthem, and what we were founded on. I think I’m extremely American.”
She admitted that she was “not perfect” but suggested that neither was her country. “Yes, we are a great country, and there are many things that are so amazing and I feel very fortunate to be in this country. I would never be able to do this in a lot of other places. But also: that doesn’t mean we can’t get better. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always strive to be better.”
Rapinoe repeated that call in her speech on the steps of New York City Hall last week.
She was talking not far from the subway station where eight posters of the player had been vandalised with permanent marks that featured what the NYPD called “various derogatory, anti-sexual orientation comments.” The city, which just celebrated the world’s largest LGBT pride parade two weeks ago, is investigating it as a potential hate crime against the LGBT community.
“Many people would prefer she score a goal and not say anything because they don’t want to deal with an American hero who is a proud, dyke heartthrob,” says Ms Morris, the history professor. She says the world has come a long way in accepting LGBT athletes over the past few decades but there’s still a long way to go.
Despite the anti-LGBT sentiment that Rapinoe’s fame has evoked in some, many see her celebrity as “a moment of great promise” for female athletes and the LGBT community as whole. Ms Morris says that having a smart, high-achieving lesbian win for the US on a world stage gives her hope. “People are realising that homophobia is a waste of talent and achievement.”