Tussle with the president of the United States while maintaining her dignity and her conviction; be tied as the top scorer in her sport’s signature event; be what amounts to the MVP of that tournament; battle injury with both gritted teeth and nonchalance; startlingly and sensibly take on her sport’s governing body on the eve of the most important game in four years; strike the championship-winning goal with a cool that simultaneously belied the moment and defined her performance; and leave us all wondering what she’ll say next. Not in the selfie-taking, clickbait manner of the day, but because what she says matters for this generation — and the next, and the next, in perpetuity.
Yeah, sure, maybe someone else will surpass all that, or match it, or even dare approach it.
Oh, come on. It’s July, and the 2019 Sportsperson of the Year race has an insurmountable leader: Megan Rapinoe.
Parse it how you will, solely by athletic accomplishment or by deftly using the platform sports provide. Rapinoe wins. She wins domestically in a landslide, because her performance on the pitch led the U.S. women’s national team to its fourth World Cup title, and its second in a row, with speed and strength and resolve. She wins internationally, because in a non-Olympic year, no sporting event trumps the World Cup, and there was no more frightening situation for an American opponent than a ball served down the left wing with Rapinoe chasing after it. So often, her 34-year-old body would win that race, and you were left with the feeling that her wise mind would will herself to get there first, to either score or set someone else up.
There’s something to be said for the eye being drawn to a particular athletic character in the course of competition. The eye, this summer, was constantly and inarguably drawn to Rapinoe. And that doesn’t even account for the ear, for what she said or how she said it.
She scored six goals. She assisted on three others. Those numbers were matched only by teammate Alex Morgan. Yet even as Morgan drew the second-half foul that, upon video review, led to the Americans’ best scoring chance in Sunday’s final against the Netherlands, Rapinoe was chosen to take the penalty kick that gave the Americans the lead because she possesses superior skills and an unusually tranquil mind — even when all is buzzing about her, from the challenges provided by the Dutch to the rebukes from her own president.
And then there’s the matter of what she thinks — and what she makes us think.
“I think that I’m particularly, uniquely and very deeply American,” Rapinoe said in the days between the semifinal victory over England, which she sat out with a hamstring issue, and Sunday’s final.
While we’re building toward a defining 2020 election, it’s worth considering exactly that: What does this team, and what do these players, say about being American?
There is the obvious hard work and perseverance, among the qualities on which we like to say we’re founded. But Rapinoe reminds about other tenets of our existence, not least of which are individuality and freedom of speech. There is, of course, her stance on President Trump, and the indelicate manner in which she said — in a video recorded in January but alluringly released during the World Cup — she wouldn’t, uh, be attending any White House reception, should there be one.
There was a time, of course, when athletes showed up at the White House whether they supported the president or not, and you can argue that time should still exist. Rapinoe is one of a growing legion who is helping us think that through. Disagree, and that’s your right. But we’re all better for the discourse, particularly as it pertains to attitudes about gender.
More important than some ceremony, though, is her participation in the ongoing discussion — which is a nice term, given the legal case moving forward in which the members of the U.S. women’s team are suing the very body that employs them — about gender equity in soccer. There’s pay, of course. But more than that, too.
With the most significant match of her career a day away, Rapinoe was able to approach the subject with the same attitude with which she approached that penalty kick against Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal — complete understanding of the importance of the moment, but all the serenity to handle precisely what was asked.
In this case, Rapinoe’s cares weren’t about what the U.S. Soccer Federation provided the men or didn’t provide the women. It was about what FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, did to acknowledge the women who provided this spectacular month in France. Globally, was United States vs. the Netherlands not just the year’s featured match — but even the day’s? FIFA scheduled the finals of two important men’s tournaments — the Concacaf Gold Cup and the Copa America — on the same damn day as Rapinoe and her teammates should have had the stage to themselves.
What would the Sportsperson of the Year do when faced with such hypocrisy? She would call a spade a spade, even if her focus was supposed to be on the match FIFA nominally declared the year’s most important.
“If you really care, are you letting the [pay] gap grow? Are you scheduling three finals on the same day?” Rapinoe said to reporters in France. “No, you’re not.”
Plain spoken, just how we used to like ’em stateside.
The World Cup provided, of course, not just a stage for Rapinoe — her talent and her talk — but another chance for these remarkable American women to show their wares, both individually and, more importantly, together. Rapinoe is a perfect reminder of the standard of soccer in this country — that the women, not the men, carry the torch, and the women, not the men, hand it from generation to generation.
As she went through the receiving line to accept award after award Sunday, Rapinoe repeatedly embraced Kristine Lilly, the old midfielder who has played more international matches than any American of any gender — ever. Lilly was one of those ’99ers, the World Cup champion group led by Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy made iconic by Brandi Chastain’s shirtless celebration at the Rose Bowl.
It’s worth remembering, two decades later: The guts of that team ended its career at the 2004 Olympics, with gold. From there, Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo carried it forward. Rapinoe missed the 2008 Olympics with an injury. Her appearances as a key cog in this machine came first at the 2011 World Cup, then at the 2012 Olympics — which ended in gold — and then in the past two World Cups, both victories.
She should be celebrated for her part in all of that, which is immense. But in carving out her own legacy over the past month, she has also reassured us that in American soccer — at least on the leading, women’s side — there will always be someone else. Rose Lavelle scored the goal that sealed Sunday’s match, and it was a left-footed spectacle to be sure. Lavelle is 24, and something about what she just did in France makes it seem as if we’ll be writing odes to her in a decade, just as she passes the baton to some current 14-year-old. That’s the tradition of American soccer — at least on the women’s side.
But more than anyone at the moment, Megan Rapinoe is American soccer, American sport. She is a pink-haired nonconformist, unafraid of anything, performing when her country asks for it, speaking her mind regardless of who asks. She is your 2019 Sportsperson of the Year, regardless of what the calendar says.