Kaepernick eventually was run out of football for his audacious protest and left to sue for wages he thought were taken from him as punishment.
Rapinoe continued to support what Kaepernick started, demonstratively and vocally, with the support of her employer, including U.S. Soccer, for whom she is starring on the pitch at the Women’s World Cup in France and being lauded off it for her unflinching criticism of the Trump administration.
We in the media lauded her support for the LGBTQ community, of which she is a part, as well as for her amplifying the call for the women’s national team to be paid the same as the men’s.
The Atlantic even deemed Rapinoe “her generation’s Muhammad Ali.” But it was Kaepernick, with whom Rapinoe allied, who like Ali lost his job because of his activism and was left to seek relief in court.
Kaepernick is black; Rapinoe is white. We’ve even championed her as the first white athlete to have Kaepernick’s back. As such, we would be negligent if we did not wrap the monument we appear to be on the verge of erecting to Rapinoe for her fearless speaking of truth to power, or merely continuing what Kaepernick began, in the prophylactic of white privilege.
It certainly could be considered that Rapinoe’s surviving, if not thriving, as an impassioned supporter of a stance taken by a black man, who was ostracized and vilified for it, has something more to do with her gender or maybe even her sport. But history suggests otherwise.
For example, despite blossoming into a near-20-points-per-game scorer, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career was short-circuited in the 1990s after he stopped celebrating the national anthem, citing its conflict with his Muslim faith.
Most infamously, Ali was stripped of his license to make a living as a professional boxer and convicted by the U.S. government for refusing conscription into the Army as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
Not long after, John Carlos and Tommie Smith were run out of the Olympics, and nearly American society, for protesting on the 1968 Summer Games medal stand to bring attention to human rights abuses.
It also has not been unusual for white athletes to be exalted for actions for which black athletes were dismissed at best or excoriated at worst. For example, over the years, starting in the 1990s, a handful of black football and basketball players in college suggested out loud that college athletics should give them more than room, board and tuition. But it was a white, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Johnny Manziel, who Time magazine made a cover boy in 2013 to argue it was time college athletes get a paycheck.
Louis Moore, a history professor at Grand Valley State University, offered this observation even about the reintegration of sports in the first half of the last century. He pointed out how white Brooklyn Dodgers executive Branch Rickey was celebrated as much for seeking Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier as Robinson, who endured the brunt of America’s racism at the time, mostly by himself. Moore observed the same of Yale’s white football players shortly after the Robinson experiment when they voted a black running back, Levi Jackson, as captain.
“The amount of ‘help’ whites provided black athletes is debatable,” Moore wrote in his 2017 book, “We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete and the Quest for Equality,” “but we do know that the stories we sometimes tell about integration, or the muscular assimilation of the black athlete, are overshadowed by the need to highlight white allies.”
“Black folks have been saying that for decades, centuries,” Dartmouth history professor Derrick White said on the Black Athlete podcast with Moore. “We’re not getting equal treatment when it comes to any number of areas. But when white people say it, it becomes a larger story, in part because of their position and because of the privilege.”
It’s kind of like Kim Kardashian giving shine to President Trump on criminal justice reform as if countless black people such as Angela Davis and Marian Wright Edelman haven’t been the vanguard of that effort for decades.
The role of white athletes in black athletes’ struggles may be lost in our framing during the World Cup of what Rapinoe is daring to do, but she long understood her function.
“It was a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now,” Rapinoe told American Soccer Now on Sept. 4, 2016, after she knelt during the national anthem before her NWSL team, Seattle Reign FC, drew, 2-2, at Chicago. “I think it’s actually pretty disgusting the way he was treated and the way that a lot of the media has covered it and made it about something that it absolutely isn’t.
“We need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”
So maybe that Rapinoe statue would be most representative, too, if it wasn’t just her — but her with Kaepernick, the man who inspired her in the first place.