I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why Megan Rapinoe’s World Cup performance was so impactful. It’s not just that she was great; Carli Lloyd was great in the 2015 World Cup, but I would argue that her performance is now remembered as an exemplary sports performance, not as a transcendent cultural moment. There was something about the way Rapinoe excelled in the face of political backlash that infused her moments of glory with a deeper significance that we may be talking about for generations. The explanation only became clear to me when I saw the president back down from his attacks on Rapinoe, and, a few weeks later, launch new attacks that were rhetorically similar but more sinister against four congresswomen of color: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, now collectively known as “the Squad.”
So I started with a question: what do Megan Rapinoe and the Squad have in common?
There are several answers to this question. They’re all American. They’re all women. They’re all highly capable. They’re all remarkably accomplished in their chosen fields. They’ve all articulated cogent critiques of a president whose rhetoric is as violent as his incompetence.
But I’d like to focus on a particular experience they share: they all have been dehumanized by the president, turned into symbols of a suspect otherness that conservatives attack under the guise of patriotism. What’s important is that we synthesize the lessons each of them teach us.
Rapinoe’s brilliant turn in the 2019 World Cup was inspirational in a number of ways, perhaps the most enduring being that she showed American girls and boys to play the game with joy, poise, and swagger. She played the tournament in a way that gives the lie to the myth that political awareness is a weakness for an athlete. It’s an argument that’s often made in bad faith, and its proponents use a number of cliches to express it, like “stick to sports,” “focus on winning,” and “tune out the noise.” Athletes who do express political dissent are “divisive” or, the kiss of death: “a distraction” (as in, Q: Hey Broncos, was Case Keenum really your best idea at QB last year? Why not go sign Kaepernick? A: He’s too much of a distraction).
Rapinoe showed us, like Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King, and Tommie Smith did before her, that athletes can compete, and indeed win at the highest levels of global sport while speaking up for justice for the disempowered. And like Ali, King, and Smith, Rapinoe didn’t just win while expressing political opinions. Rapinoe won the golden ball and the golden boot despite missing a match with a hamstring injury, and she did it while the most powerful man in the world used his platform to berate an individual American citizen, question her love for her country, and implicitly unleash the fury of the most obnoxious and vitriolic online community in the history of the world—Donald Trump’s Twitter supporters. He implied Rapinoe hates her country and bizarrely attacked NBA players in the same tweet, arguing that NBA players should not criticize Trump or speak out for social justice because they should be grateful for Trump’s (non-existent) work on behalf of black Americans. Perhaps Rapinoe blocked out the noise. But now that the ink is dry, the narrative of the 2019 World Cup tells us that the words “I’m not going to the fucking White House”—and the decision to stand behind all but one of those words—actually fueled Megan Rapinoe’s transcendent performance. The moment when Rapinoe scored a goal and ran to the corner to celebrate with her now-iconic “come at me bro” pose, we understood it as a political act in the language of sport. That’s indelible.
And because Rapinoe was, for at least one tournament, the best in the world at what she does, she overwhelmed Trump’s ability to fabricate a culture war and move the goalposts to claim a cosmetic victory. And the beauty of sport is revealed in the way Trump backed down from the fight, waiting hours longer than other politicians (mostly Democrats) to post a subdued congratulatory tweet that was almost certainly written by a staffer, not by Trump himself. That beauty is the often unfulfilled promise of sport, that it can provide a perfectly-level playing field, a space in which status and power mean nothing; only skill, determination, and execution do. The scoreboard doesn’t care about your feelings, your politics, or any of your peccadillos. If you pick a fight with an athlete by calling them a loser, no amount of rhetorical savantism can save you if the scoreboard says fuck off. Megan Rapinoe showed us that, contrary to appearances, there is a point at which Donald Trump will back down. If it’s undeniable that he’s losing, he will go looking for a different fight.
I don’t want to belabor the connections between Rapinoe and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar—the Squad. Nor do I wish to waste anyone’s time explaining how what Trump said about the Squad was racist. If you don’t see the racism, my guess is you’re trying hard not to. My point is that it’s clear Trump’s tweets were on some level intended to dehumanize the four congresswomen and turn them into a collective symbol. The good Germans who defend Trump will tell you that the move to criticize the Squad was supposed to make the Squad symbolize far-left politics and make a dishonest and manipulative argument about socialism being un-American. But Trump said the quiet part loud again. He wasn’t supposed to admit that conservative discourses around loving one’s country are at best disingenuous, and at worst a dog whistle for white identity politics.
I’m always dubious of any claims that Trump is playing four-dimensional chess when he says something repugnant. I also categorically reject any claim that PC culture is, well, a real thing, and a real thing against which millions of people are eager to fight. PC culture is a bullshit term intended to empower white people to foster harmful attitudes and express them without remorse. This is made clear by the discordant responses to white supremacist attacks on personhood (ex: referring to undocumented immigrants with the noun “illegals”) and antiracist attacks on behaviors (ex: saying someone said or did something racist). Verbal attacks on personhood are understood by the logic of white supremacy as a sacred right, while verbal attacks on racist behavior are interpreted as attacks on white personhood.
The reason I declare my aversion to these discourses is because I want to stress that I don’t come to the following conclusion lightly: Donald Trump is a gifted rhetor, and he specifically engages in a kind of rhetoric that rewards rather than punishes unpreparedness, deliberately obtuse interpretation of (con/sub)text, and, above all else, appeals to white grievance. This rhetorical slipperiness is why the Squad has a tougher row to hoe than Megan Rapinoe did. There’s no scoreboard to point to, so Trump and his supporters can declare absurd victories. I was deeply moved when I saw the videos of hundreds of people gathered at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to welcome home and show support for Ilhan Omar in the wake of the president’s and his supporters attacks on her. But Trump can dismiss the dedication and fortitude it took for those supporters to respond to demoralizing, cynical hatred with a message of love and hope. Even as he falsely claims he didn’t fucking love it when people at his campaign rally began chanting “send her back,” he can brag about crowd sizes as if there’s not a reasonable explanation for why a campaign rally would have more attendees than an airport welcome.
This is why it’s so important for athletes like Megan Rapinoe—athletes who are politically conscious, well-informed, complex, thoughtful people who excel at their craft—to continue to speak out against injustice. Their access to an objective scoreboard frustrates the president’s bluster. I fear I’m going to sound like an academic elitist when I finish this sentence, but I think it needs to be said: some athletes are dullards, and I’m fine with not hearing from them on important issues. But those athletes with the privileges of both a platform and a capable, caring mind have not just a right but a responsibility to use them in this moment.
And loathe as I am to yoke political effectiveness to athletic performance, I have to admit: it’s important that they win while they do it.