Following the USA’s second consecutive triumph at the Women’s World Cup in July, Megan Rapinoe has become a household name. Despite being the top scorer in the tournament with six goals and the Golden Ball winner, Rapinoe’s rapid rise to stardom has unfortunately come not only as a result of her brilliance on the pitch, but her divisiveness off of it. It would be fair to assume that an openly gay female footballer would not be met with torrents of abuse for her refusal to greet a perceivably misogynistic, homophobic President, or for her ‘arrogant’ celebrations following the completion of her life’s work. However, Rapinoe’s reality is a far cry from such a sensible assumption.
The soccer star’s divisiveness is complex. Conservative commentators choose to target her admittedly brash persona. Brad Polumbo of the Washington Examiner for instance has labelled Rapinoe a “groundlessly bitter, petulant celebrity who is totally ungrateful for the opportunities she’s had.” He went on to call her “kind of an awful person.” Although Polumbo’s criticism of Rapinoe is at face value a critique of her character, to accuse a member of the LGBTQ+ community of being “ungrateful for the opportunities she’s had,” in the midst of an equal pay debate which Rapinoe is the figurehead of seems like an underdeveloped point of view. If anyone has had to fight vigorously against a backwards society and exclusion in order to have what she has, it is Megan Rapinoe.
This kind of critique is particularly infuriating when compared to other articles which Polumbo has written about the topic of LGBTQ+ rights in sport. For example, on July 27, following the deletion of a twitter account called “the gay footballer,” which had intended to facilitate the presentation of the first openly gay active male footballer in the English Premier League, Polumbo rightly lamented the “rampant homophobia” in the men’s game. However, this open minded approach is in stark contrast to referring to Rapinoe as “petulant” for her refusal to meet with a President who is persistently embroiled in controversy relating to misogyny. The hypocrisy is self evident. Whether Polumbo or his colleagues would term an openly gay male footballer “petulant” or “ungrateful” for refusing to meet with such a character remains to be seen. Realistically, the answer is no.
“If anyone has had to fight vigorously against a backwards society and exclusion in order to have what she has, it is Megan Rapinoe.”
The US media’s primary peeve with Rapinoe is supposedly her confidence. However, it must be noted that this is the same press which idolises characters such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Conor McGregor and Lionel Messi. This troika of athletes are afforded deity not in spite of their arrogance, but because of it. They are described as inspirational, hard working and primary examples of the power of self belief. Past misgivings in the form of a rape allegation for Ronaldo, racial slurs or attacking a man in a pub for McGregor, tax evasion and claims that a tournament was corrupt because he didn’t win it for Messi, are all conveniently forgotten. Rapinoe, despite her unquestionable brilliance, is not afforded the same amount of leeway. In light of such comparison, it could be said that the supposed Land of the Free, to put it in the words of the BBC’s Marianna Brady, may simply be “a little triggered by an athlete who is strong, gay and female.”
Another central component to Rapinoe’s controversy is her political activism. Refusing to visit President Trump in the White House following the World Cup victory aside, Rapinoe has campaigned vigorously for equal pay in women’s football and was also a part of the Colin Kapernick movement, which involved kneeling for the national anthem as a sign of protest against police brutality in America. These actions have led to Polumbo describing Rapinoe as “unpatriotic”, while Mark Thessien of the New York Post has deemed her “needlessly, selfishly divisive.”
“This is the same press which idolises characters such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Conor McGregor and Lionel Messi”
To describe Rapinoe as being unpatriotic for kneeling during a song as a means of catalysing positive social change is particularly baffling, and is indicative of the lack of societal progression in America which Rapinoe’s fame has shone a light upon. This double standard is most apparent when compared to the public response to the recent actions of Alejandro Bedoya, a male American soccer player, who following a goal admirably took to the Stadium’s audio systems, insisting Congress “do something about gun violence.” Words used in response to Bedoya’s statement included “hero” and “genius.” Adjectives such as “petulant” and “unpatriotic” were nowhere to be found.
Perhaps it could be a gender thing after all.
This is what makes the kind of backlash which Rapinoe has come to face worrying, if not unsurprising. Despite having all the ingredients to be universally adored, her disarming willingness to step on important toes has been used, for the most part, as a facade for closed minded people to criticise her on the basis of her gender and her sexual orientation.
Her rise to fame is undoubtedly a difficult cross to bear, but it represents an important landmark in achieving equal status in sports. While she has faced criticism in its most sinister of forms, she has also received the support and adulation which her achievements deserve. Despite its ugly consequences, Rapinoe’s fame is a moment of great promise for marginalised athletes, and she is undoubtedly capable of fanning such an important flame.