by Tony Wyman
If any male footballer had struck the same pose as Megan Rapinoe struck after scoring the winning goal that earned the United States Women’s National Soccer Team their second consecutive World Cup title, the sporting world would barely have taken note.
After all, such displays of brashness and boldness are common among male athletes. Players in men’s leagues used to rip their shirts off in celebration, but now that practice is banned, they make self-aggrandizing jaunts to the corner flags every time the ball touches the back of the net. Other sports don’t even wait to score to throw a celebratory spectacle. Every five yard run in the NFL, for example, is followed by a dance celebration that would make Broadway proud.
But, when Ms. Rapinoe raised her arms as if to announce her arrival on the world’s stage, the chauvinist sports press had a fit. It wasn’t just the boldness of the gesture that flipped out sexists in the press box, it was the fact it was made by Ms. Rapinoe, the openly-gay, whip-smart, strikingly-attractive world class athlete, who has taken on President Trump, the American soccer federation and a host of social issues in direct and brash fashion that’s unsettled the traditional sports media more comfortable with female athletes being demure and soft spoken.
And, of course, it wasn’t just sports writers knocked off balance by Ms. Rapinoe. MAGA commentators more at home with the 1950’s view of women like Neal Boortz, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News’ Jesse Watters and the Washington Examiner’s Brad Polumbo, writer of the “Lone Conservative” column, also objected.
Mr. Polumbo even went as far as to suggest that Mr. Rapinoe was a poor role model for young female athletes, suggesting they should look elsewhere for guidance on how to behave as competitive sportswomen. “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,” he wrote, leaving readers wondering if he penned a similar commentary on Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell who sat out the 2018 season rather than accept a $14.5 million contract and risk injury in the prime of his career.
Mr. Boortz suggested that the women on the team chose to skip the traditional celebratory trip to the White House, not because they were repulsed by the sexist behavior of President Trump or by his deliberately divisive politics associated with LGBTQ issues, but because they weren’t “great logical thinkers,” a slight often directed at women by misogynists who believe the stereotype that women allow their emotions to rule their behavior and that, unlike men, they don’t often employ logic when making choices.
Fox pundit Jesse Watters went a step further, suggesting Ms. Rapinoe was hurting her argument for equal pay by “disparaging” the president and causing viewers to turn off their televisions. “The point is … that the women are not helping their case by their behavior,” said Mr. Watters during an episode of The Five. “If you go out and you disparage the president and you act in unpatriotic ways and then complain about not getting paid equally, well, what do you think is going to happen?” he asked. “People aren’t going to watch.”
Viewership for the women’s final, despite all the unpatriotic behavior, was 14.3 million. Later that night, the U.S. Men’s National Team played in the Gold Cup Final against arch rival Mexico, an opponent that draws large viewership typically. For that final, that the U.S. men lost 1-0, viewership was 8.7 million. Only 11.4 million Americans watched the 2018 men’s World Cup final between France (4) and Croatia (2).
Why I Am Kneeling
The irony of Mr. Watters’ comment condemning Ms. Rapinoe and her teammates for lacking the demure, ladylike deference to the president that he believes American soccer supporters and fans of female athletes in general demand, is, of course, Mr. Trump has a long and storied history of failing to treat women like a gentleman should.
When he isn’t walking in on underaged beauty contestants in their dressing rooms or bragging that women let celebrities like him “do whatever you want,” including grabbing them by the genitals, he’s telling reporters the best way to handle women is “…to treat them like sh*t.” Hardly the behavior of a gentleman.
From Mr. Watters’ perspective, it is the patriotic duty of the United States Women’s National Soccer Team to overlook these misdeeds by the president and to allow themselves to be used as props in a photo opportunity by Mr. Trump who, they contend, supports positions antithetical to ones vital to women in general and to members of the team, specifically. Now, of course, Mr. Watters also objects to Ms. Rapinoe refusing to cover her heart or to sing during the National Anthem, something he and other Americans view as unpatriotic.
But Ms. Rapinoe argues that drawing attention to injustice in American society is the very essence of patriotism. In an article she wrote in October 2016 called Why I Am Kneeling, she wrote,
I can understand if you think that I’m disrespecting the flag by kneeling, but it is because of my utmost respect for the flag and the promise it represents that I have chosen to demonstrate in this way. When I take a knee, I am facing the flag with my full body, staring straight into the heart of our country’s ultimate symbol of freedom — because I believe it is my responsibility, just as it is yours, to ensure that freedom is afforded to everyone in this country.
Pointing out that many Americans across the country are not enjoying the freedoms, peace and liberties that other Americans take for granted, Ms. Rapinoe encouraged her fans to join with her in taking action in their communities to make things better for all. Quoting Emma Lazarus, she said, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
Having these kinds of conversations can be difficult and complex, but so what? We should talk to our family members and challenge them, bringing these hard problems to the dinner table and persevering through uncomfortable conversations. This is not a “them” problem — this is an “us” problem.
That is a sentiment that she took with her to New York City and to the celebration of the team’s second consecutive World Cup victory there. She encouraged those assembled to get involved in making their communities better by getting involved themselves and making a difference by doing “what you can do” and by being “bigger than you’ve ever been before.”
“You’re more than someone who just supports sports,” she said to a burgeoning crowd of soccer supporters in New York City, “you’re more than someone who tunes in every four years. You’re someone who walks these streets every single day, you interact with your community every single day — how do you make your community better? How do you make the people around you better?” she asked. “Do what you can do, what you have to do, step outside yourself, be more, be better. Be bigger than you’ve ever been before.”
Being bigger that you’ve ever been before is what patriotism looks like to Megan Rapinoe. Stepping up into the spotlight, regardless of who you are, to take on an injustice, to fight for a better America, to defend the rights of those who aren’t able to defend themselves, is the duty of a patriotic American, in her view.
“We got to know that this is everybody’s responsibility, every single person here, every single person who is not here, every single person who doesn’t want to be here, every single person who agrees and doesn’t agree. It’s our responsibility to make this world a better place,” she told the cheering New York City crowd. “This is my charge to everyone, we have to be better. We have to love more, hate less. We got to listen more and talk less.”
What is unpatriotic about that?