Megan Rapinoe lends much-needed female voice to race debate

Kate Markgraf, Megan Rapinoe's teammate on the USWNT from 2006-10, says she isn't surprised by Rapinoe's decision to kneel during the national anthem and thinks it won't be an issue for U.S. soccer.

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With one ill-chosen word, Hope Solo turned a matter of soccer tactics into moral condemnation. With the help of U.S. Soccer's opportunistic overreaction, a molehill became a mountain.

Megan Rapinoe prefers to use the molehill that sports actually are to try to scale mountains.

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Megan Rapinoe told Julie Foudy, "I am disgusted with way [Colin Kaepernick] has been treated and the fans and hatred he has received in all of this. It is overtly racist."

Competitive. Fierce. Humble. Badass.

Those were the words Rapinoe chose while expressing disappointment with Solo in the aftermath of the veteran goalkeeper's criticism of the Swedish team that eliminated Solo, Rapinoe and the rest of the U.S. women's national team from the Olympics. Rapinoe's words were examples of what American players should be.

Notably absent under the circumstances were other words that at one time might have been applied to the most popular team in women's sports: uncontroversial, inoffensive, bland.

At the risk of putting words in the mouth of a player who is adept at speaking them herself, or even communicating silently through the act of kneeling during the national anthem, Rapinoe sounded disappointed not with the controversy surrounding Solo but the pointlessness of it.

So after Rapinoe knelt Sunday during the anthem prior to a National Women's Soccer League game, she told espnW's Julie Foudy that the gesture of solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was born out of being "disgusted" with the way he has been treated and her desire for a "more substantive conversation about race relations."

It is debatable whether her gesture, as a one-time offering or if repeated, can accomplish that goal. We are in the midst of a national conversation, or shouting match, about the national anthem. Rapinoe undoubtedly extended the topic for at least another news cycle. That isn't necessarily the same thing as a conversation about the substance of any complaints.

But if we truly hold to the idea that there is social value in younger generations, especially girls, watching Rapinoe pursue an athletic passion once reserved for men, then the same must be true of listening to her engage in what President Barack Obama days ago described as "active citizenry."

One cannot be true without the other. If all are to have opportunities, then all must have voices.

Rapinoe noted this weeks ago when asked before an Olympic send-off game in Kansas City about the WNBA players who wore shirts in support of both Black Lives Matter and five police officers killed in a Dallas shooting; the players were fined by the WNBA as a result.

"Not everybody has to be an activist, but we have a pretty incredible platform being an athlete in this country," Rapinoe told Excelle Sports at the time. "Sports is very valued and sort of glorified in this country, and if you want to have that voice, I absolutely think you should."

And she does. She did long before any music started playing Sunday.

As a college player at the University of Portland, soccer was all the larger world knew of her, if it knew of her at all. She was an inventive, sublimely skilled player with a star-crossed history of injuries. At some point the world as she knew it intermingled with what the world knew of her.

Soccer and social justice intersected.

" I think even before I came out [in 2012]," Rapinoe said when asked about that evolution during the Olympics, "I think you can sort of look at a big part of our fan base, and there's a lot of gay fans that we have. And so for me, I kind of always was aware of that. And then since coming out, I think it's been even more, and something that I really embrace is that I can talk about it, talk to media about it, and sort of open up the conversation and not have it be such a taboo issue."

She referenced an article she read that suggested the number of out gay athletes in the Olympics numbered only in the dozens among the thousands of athletes who competed.

"I think the more we can have these conversations and break down these walls and barriers and stereotypes, the more other athletes will feel comfortable coming out, hopefully."

Her answer came in the context of one facet of her life, sexual orientation, but it is far from the only facet. She is among the national team players (as is Solo) who are pursuing an equal pay complaint against U.S. Soccer. When asked out of the blue one day during last year's World Cup about the problems facing Metis youth in Manitoba, Canada, she didn't deflect the question with the standard response of being focused on soccer but instead admitted she knew the issue only a little -- and would like to know more. It is hardly a surprise that she felt moved to act now, too.

The irony in all of this is that it seems entirely plausible that Rapinoe offended far more people who might show up to watch her play for the United States in its remaining games this fall than Solo did in calling the Swedish team "a bunch of cowards" for adopting a defensive game plan.

Still, it is controversy with a point.

A voice need not be loud to matter. And as with Solo, a loud voice does not always resonate.

But controversy is never a reason to stay silent.

Reuters

U.S. Soccer's Megan Rapinoe, right, speaking with Hillary Clinton during a Glassdoor Pay Equality roundtable in April 2016, has long seen an intersection between sports and social justice.

As with any issue of free speech, plenty of people have turned during the Kaepernick saga to a quote often mistakenly attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Some present it as a shield, others as an example of a naive nature. Yet one more debate without a resolution.

But the image of Rapinoe kneeling before the start of a professional soccer game casts it in a different light. It was, after all, Evelyn Beatrice Hall who wrote those words, a woman who by the norms of the time in the early 20th century had to write under the pseudonym S.G. Tallentyre.

It wasn't a woman's place to have a voice on matters of consequence.

Since that's no longer true, perhaps controversial conversations can bring about change.

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