Why Megan Rapinoe is America’s badass sweetheart

Edward Helmore
Photograph: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

The sport

When the celebrations die down, Team USA will disperse to their regular season teams in the National Women’s Soccer League. For team co-captains Megan Rapinoe and striker Alex Morgan that means Reign FC in Washington state and Orlando Pride in Florida, respectively.

Brimming with confidence, Rapinoe is known for her agile style of play as a midfielder and winger, a skillset that has taken the team from international triumph to international triumph. With the World Cup battle won, Rapinoe, Morgan, forward Carli Lloyd and defender Becky Sauerbrunn filed a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation claiming that they should be paid the same as the men’s team for international games.

While Rapinoe’s place as a US women soccer superstar is assured – she’s been described as her generation’s Muhammad Ali – she is always careful to attribute her success to the team.

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“This group … is just so badass,” said Rapinoe during last week’s parade. “There is nothing that can faze this group. We’re chilling. We’ve got tea-sipping. We’ve got celebrations. We’ve got pink hair and purple hair. We’ve got tattoos and dreadlocks. We’ve got white girls and black girls and everything in between. Straight girls and gay girls.”

It won’t be long until we see them again. Next summer, in fact, at the Tokyo Olympics.

The celebration

The world champions celebrate as they arrive home from France. Photograph: Eduardo Muñoz/Reuters

The team, with Rapinoe in the forefront, didn’t stop partying for days after their 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the finalon 7 July. They stumbled off the jet home, singing We Are the Champions, waving their arms and spilling their drinks. “Brought you back a little something. World Champs, baby!” the team tweeted.

The players were given a ticker-tape parade down Wall Street, during which Rapinoe refused to sing the national anthem. Goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris posted a video on Instagram of Rapinoe clutching the trophy and saying: “I deserve this! I deserve this. Everything.”

But it was Rapinoe’s goal celebration during the tournament that sealed the love (or loathing) for the 34-year-old. Fans turned her power pose into a Twitter meme. Rapinoe told ABC’s Good Morning America: “I guess I’m looking at myself as a performer and trying to entertain. It’s sort of a funny playful pose.”

Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan invited scorn when he criticised Rapinoe’s “arrogance” under a picture of her pose. “Try winning it first, Ms Rapinoe – then inform us of your latest tiresome political activism,” he tweeted.

The activism

Megan Rapinoe kneels next to teammates Ali Krieger and Crystal Dunn as the US national anthem is played before a match against Netherlands in Atlanta in 2016. Photograph: John Bazemore/AP

Rapinoe’s political profile was given a stratospheric boost by her team’s win. A self-described “walking protest”, she is exuberantly out about being gay and is at the forefront of a drive for equal pay for female and male players – the squad is greeted with chants of “U-S-A! Equal pay!” wherever it goes. In March she was one of the 28-strong group of US women’s team players who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation. The case is still going on.

Her outspoken eloquence on a range of causes, including women’s rights and LGBTQ issues, is in marked contrast to the many monosyllabic or media-trained sports stars. With partner Sue Bird, an American-Israeli pro basketball player, she is active in the effort to normalise gay relationships in sports. The couple posed naked for ESPN’s Body Issue in 2018. Asked how it felt to lead the US team, Rapinoe replied, “Go gays!” She continued: “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before. Ever.”

She also showed solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s protest against racial injustice in 2016 by taking a knee during the national anthem at games, including an international match against Holland.

The White House

Fans in Lyon before the World Cup match against England. Photograph: Benoît Tessier/Reuters

Rapinoe has had numerous run-ins with the president. She has made it clear she has no time for a presidential bid but, according to one poll, she’d win. In an interview in June, Rapinoe said she would not visit “the fucking White House” if her team won the World Cup. Trump responded by tweeting: “I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer, but Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!”

Trump took four hours after the final whistle to tweet his congratulations. Asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper what she’d say to the president, Rapinoe said: “Your message is excluding people. You’re excluding me, you’re excluding people that look like me, you’re excluding people of colour, you’re excluding Americans that maybe support you.” She added that she’d tell him: “You need to do better for everyone.”

Former Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka accused the team of attacking American values. “They’ve gone insane, and they want to destroy everything that is wholesome in our country and in our Judeo-Christian civilisation,” he said.

The look

“A little punk rock.” Photograph: Michael Regan/FIFA via Getty Images

Before Rapinoe dropped into Seattle’s White Lodge Studios hairdressers in May, she messaged stylist Richard Drews: “I want to do something different”, maybe something “a little punk rock”. Possibly neon. The colour they came up with – a vibrant fuchsia – was a fitting look for what would follow: a fourth Women’s World Cup, with Rapinoe scoring six goals and claiming both the Golden Ball – awarded to the tournament’s top player – and a place at the forefront of gender activism.

Now thousands of women across the US are adopting Rapinoe’s tough-pixie look. “The pink, butch hair [is] in some way an expression of my comfort and security in the weird person I am,” explained one Rapinoe fan, English professor Jillian Sayre, in the Daily Beast. Sayre hopes more people will take “the pink plunge”.

Rapinoe this month became the first openly gay woman to make the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. “Her body is insane. a whole ass weapon. Sheesh,” tweeted one fan, approvingly.