Megan Rapinoe’s first touch during Saturday night’s NWSL final was a good one.
It happened in the game’s first minute: after volleying between the teams, the ball falls to the feet of OL Reign’s Sofia Huerta. The right back sends the ball across the pitch and Rapinoe races to catch it. She’s found new vigor in these playoffs — a spryness that belies her 38 years — and it’s evident again in the championship.
She settles the ball at her feet, dribbles up, and challenges Gotham’s backline. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees her teammate, Jordyn Huitema, making a run into the box and she sends the ball in to meet her. Gotham defender Ali Krieger spots the run as well and rushes to close the gap. With Krieger at her back, Huitema extends her leg but can’t get a foot on the ball, so Gotham reclaims possession. It’s an early reminder — as if Gotham or soccer fans needed one — that in the big moments, Megan Rapinoe always shows up.
That is, until she couldn’t.
Megan Rapinoe goes down with an injury less than three minutes into the NWSL Final in her last career game 💔
She receives a standing ovation from Snapdragon Stadium pic.twitter.com/uwqG2epzMK
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) November 12, 2023
Just a few minutes later, Rapinoe slips on the pitch. She masks it well and even chuckles when her teammate, Rose Lavelle, approaches but you know… you just know… she’s done. She had, to quote Rapinoe’s own diagnosis later, “fucking yeeted [her] Achilles.”
For the next 10 minutes or so, it felt like everyone, including the players on the pitch, was in disbelief. They played pensively — unable to complete passes, repeatedly turning the ball over — until the shock of what happened wore off. We all knew that this would be Megan Rapinoe’s last game but, suddenly, we’d been cheated out seeing Rapinoe in her element last time. The storybook wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Far, far away from San Diego’s Snap Dragon Stadium, I watched the scene play out and teared up. I wasn’t ready yet. I wanted more time. I wanted more time to watch Rapinoe play but, more than that, I wanted more time for her on these big stages. I know that there will be players who come after Rapinoe who match or exceed her achievements on the field, that’s the nature of sport. But what I began mourning, as Megan Rapinoe laid on the pitch, was the loss of something rarer that her soccer accolades. Ninety minutes sooner than I’d expected, I had lost the rare white athlete — hell, the rare prominent white person — willing to use their privilege unselfishly to advocate for black people.
Megan Rapinoe didn’t always speak out on racism. It wasn’t her fight… or, at the very least, it wasn’t a cause she felt as intimately as LGBT politics, pay equity, and sexism, she admits in her autobiography, One Life. But in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Rapinoe felt called to do more… but first, she had to learn more, so she read everything she could get her hands on.
“After reading everything I could about social and racial injustice, it became clear to me not only how deep the roots of white supremacy went, but also that it was the system from which all other inequalities came,” she writers in her memoir. Echoing the words Fannie Lou Hamer, Rapinoe realized that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free” and, as such, the fight against racial injustice was truly her own. And so, on September 4th 2016, just three days after Colin Kaepernick knelt for the first time, Megan Rapinoe joined him.
The blowback was immediate. Rapinoe was surprised, I was not. But she’d grown up a white woman in Redding, California and I’d grown up as a biracial black girl in the South. I knew intimately the cost of a white person loving black people; it was the first and only lesson my grandfather taught me. Rapinoe writes, “There is a particular kind of baffled outrage reserved by white people for other white people they consider to be ‘betraying’ their race, and that week I felt the full force of it.”
By the time that the Reign arrived for a mid-week match with the Washington Spirit, the club’s conservative owner ensured that Rapinoe wasn’t given the opportunity to protest: he had the anthem played while teams were still in the locker room. The owner blasted Rapinoe via press release for the anticipated show of “disrespect” and Rapinoe responded, in kind, post-game.
(Sidenote: It’s worth noting that the Washington Spirit players spoke out against their owner’s actions, noting how it distracted from their playoff focus. The captain of that Spirit squad? Ali Krieger. Two months later, despite leading the Spirit to their first-ever NWSL Final, Krieger was traded.)
Despite the blowback, Rapinoe was determined to continue her protest, even when she put on the Team USA kit during the post-Olympic friendlies. Her teammates were quietly supportive but no one joined her in kneeling. For Crystal Dunn, one of the team’s few black players, it didn’t feel like a choice.
“I also remember telling her that I had to stand because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Dunn admitted during a 2020 roundtable on racism in soccer. “I’m scared for my job. I’m scared that it’s going to look differently if a black girl on the team kneels.”
While it is impossible to be certain, it’s more likely that Dunn was right… that as a black woman, she would’ve face stiffer penalties for having protested. Kaepernick, of course, stands out as the most notable example of the penalty of black activism but even within the women’s soccer space evidence exists. Kaiya McCullough was forced out of the NWSL for speaking up about the abuse she suffered. Likewise, it’s largely believed that tension between Christen Press and the U.S. federation — which resulted in her omission from the USWNT, even before her injury — is due, in part, to the formal complaint she filed against her abusive Coach Rory Dames. Dunn almost certainly would’ve had her career ended.
Rapinoe’s persistence was met with U.S. Soccer’s resistance. After kneeling prior to a friendly versus Thailand, U.S. Soccer issued their own press release chastising Rapinoe, without naming her directly, and setting an expectation that players and coaches would stand while the national anthem was played. Ahead of the team’s next match, against the Netherlands, Rapinoe was pulled from the starting line-up.
Too often, this is where solidarity stops and why so much activism on behalf of oppressed groups feels performative. Allies are happy to support just causes right up until the moment that it inconveniences them, right up until the moment where they themselves have something to lose.
If Rapinoe had relented in that moment, I wouldn’t have begrudged her. The chorus of boos that pelted her when she subbed on against Netherlands felt like too much for any one person to take. Besides, she’d already done more than any prominent white athlete had to speak out on racial injustice. But with the world watching, Megan Rapinoe stood firm: she was more than an ally, she was an accomplice.
Rapinoe put her career on the line, giving up the safety of her own privilege to raise awareness and start a conversation about racial justice in this country, and she paid a price for it. Following the Netherlands match, she was told not to dress for year’s remaining USWNT four matches. She went months without playing and when she turned up for camp in January 2017, she had to shake off some rust. U.S. Soccer used that a situation that they created as a pre-text to disinvite Rapinoe from the next camp and, by extension, from being rostered for the 2017 SheBelieves Cup.
By March 2017, U.S. Soccer enacted a policy compelling members of the national team to stand for the anthem. To not do so, e-mails from the federation would later reveal, would’ve meant an immediate suspension for three national team camps or games. A second infraction would result in a yearlong suspension. Only after Rapinoe agreed to abide by the policy was she invited to return to the USWNT.
Three years later, U.S. Soccer would apologize to Rapinoe and repeal the policy. U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone admitted they hadn’t listened to a word Rapinoe said missed the point entirely.
Megan Rapinoe retires from the game of soccer having accomplished more than anyone could’ve ever imagined. A ten year career with her club team. Two hundred caps for the USWNT. Two World Cups. An Olympic gold. The Ballon d’Or (football’s most prestigious individual award). Three NWSL Shields. Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But, to me, what she did back in 2016 and what she’s done with her advocacy since, is what I’ll remember most. It’s the rarity of seeing a white woman on such a tremendous stage say that black lives matter and be willing to sacrifice her own standing to make the point. It wasn’t performative, it was real… a true willingness to sacrifice for the greater good. She understood that her whiteness gave her privilege and she leveraged it at every possible opportunity.
Rapinoe’s star has risen beyond the soccer world so, no doubt, when she recovers from this Achilles injury, she’ll still have a microphone and she’ll still fight the good fight. Lest anyone doubt her strength, Saturday was a stark reminder: after her injury, she stayed on the pitch — in what must have been excruciating pain — and cheered on her club. Then, when they lost, she hobbled onto the field to comfort her teammates… and as Gotham celebrated, she wrapped Ali Krieger in a warm embrace and congratulated her on the win. Even an injury can’t sideline Rapinoe being her indefatigable self.
But I wonder if anyone — in soccer, in sport, or on a similar high profile stage — will advocate for others as Rapinoe has done. Who will leverage their privilege to advocate for others, even if it makes others uncomfortable, even if it costs themselves something in the interim?
The world needs more Megan Rapinoes, I hope we didn’t see the last one in San Diego.