PARIS — There is a directness about Megan Rapinoe that lies at the heart of who she is as an athlete and person.
So when a profane comment she made months ago about not wanting to visit “the f------ White House” was aired two days before the U.S. women’s national team’s World Cup quarterfinal, went viral and triggered a backlash from President Trump, Rapinoe tackled it the moment a microphone was placed in front of her Thursday.
“I stand by the comments I made about not wanting to go to the White House, with the exception of the expletive. My mom will be very upset about that,” said Rapinoe, 33, who spoke in a previously scheduled news conference at Parc des Princes alongside U.S. Coach Jill Ellis.
Rapinoe went on to explain that the remarks, uttered during a January photo shoot with the soccer publication Eight by Eight and released online Tuesday by the magazine, had been made with “a lot of passion.” Fully aware of the platform she has as a member of the U.S. team, Rapinoe reiterated her intent to use her voice in ways that leave the sport and the world in a better place.
“I don’t think that I would want to go,” Rapinoe explained, “and I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and doesn’t fight for the same things that we fight for.”
With that, Rapinoe said she would have no more to say on the matter and invited questions about Friday’s match against France, the most anticipated clash of the tournament, pitting the fast-rising host country against the three-time champion United States, which has scored 20 goals and conceded just one to reach this stage.
Like all champion athletes, Rapinoe is expert at compartmentalizing. It is an essential survival skill at the elite level of sports. A cornerback gets beaten on a 40-yard touchdown pass, he forgets it and moves on. A goalkeeper lets a penalty kick streak past, she girds for the next attempt.
For Rapinoe, the controversy over her While House comment is closed. Ellis said as much, too, dismissing a suggestion that it posed a distraction before what is expected to be the U.S. women’s toughest test in pursuit of a fourth World Cup title.
“I think this team has remarkable focus,” Ellis said. “We all support Megan; she knows that. We have each other’s backs in there. And I think for our players, there’s only one purpose, one mission that we’re here [to accomplish].”
But compartmentalizing and moving on aren’t necessarily what sports fans do.
That’s the nature of fandom, in a sense. To follow sports with a passion. To have favorite athletes or teams and keep a running tally of their greatness while seeing their rivals as the enemy.
Athletes, of course, are far more complex.
And few are as complex, compelling and polarizing as Rapinoe for her refusal to back down on the soccer pitch and her equally dogged refusal to pipe down on issues of equity, fairness and social justice.
“You have to keep grinding,” Rapinoe said in an April interview in Denver before a U.S. friendly against Australia.
The topic was the gender-discrimination lawsuit that all 28 members of the U.S. national women’s soccer team filed in March against their boss, the U.S. Soccer Federation.
“We’ll all be doing this until the end of our careers and probably until the end of my life, in some way,” Rapinoe continued. “Unfortunately, that is life. You either are defeated by it, or you work to defeat it.”
The topic could just as easily have been a deadlocked, knockout-round match in the World Cup, such as the round-of-16 match the U.S. women played Monday against Spain, in which Rapinoe blasted the penalty kicks that won it, 2-1.
Time and time again, Rapinoe has proved to be a big-game player, determined to be the difference-maker, via a goal or an assist, when a game is in the balance. She is a relentless grinder.
She is also an athlete who understands her value as a 14-year veteran of the U.S. national team and that of her teammates. And she knows if they don’t demand to be compensated accordingly by the U.S. Soccer Federation, the equitable wages and working conditions they seek won’t be handed to them.
As for personal style, Rapinoe loves the spotlight. She tinted her white-blond hair pink for the World Cup. The more eyes on her — and on women’s soccer — the better she performs.
“I like those big moments; those are the most fun for me,” Rapinoe said Thursday. “I think if you play a sport, if you want to be in this profession, it’s best to embrace those big moments. It’s where all the goods are.”
On a U.S. team brimming with confidence, Rapinoe exudes authority on the pitch. Chalk it up to a sense of self she has had since she was 5. For that she credits her family, the values they instilled and the support of her loved ones and teammates.
“I feel very empowered and emboldened by that,” she said.
Now contesting her third World Cup, Rapinoe still relishes the fight. And she still celebrates exuberantly, as she did in belting out a full-voiced “Born in the USA” homage to Bruce Springsteen upon scoring against Colombia in her 2011 World Cup debut in China.
Her choreographed display here in France upon scoring the United States’ ninth goal in its 13-0 rout of Thailand played poorly with many sports fans, who criticized it as classless.
Rapinoe, one of the U.S. squad’s three co-captains, said upon reflection that the team’s only crime was “an explosion of joy.”
Of late, it is Rapinoe’s silence during the playing of the national anthem that offends some fans. She declines to sing the words, she has explained, as a form of protest over the ways in which she feels America’s promise of justice for minorities, the LGBT community and the most vulnerable has fallen short.
Trump seized on that this week, as well, tweeting: “Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team. Be proud of the Flag that you wear. The USA is doing GREAT!”
For any of these reasons or a combination, Rapinoe is not likely to be the U.S. squad’s most popular athlete as the 2019 Women’s World Cup heads to the medal rounds, even if she continues to score game-winning goals and create scoring chances for others.
But it takes an uncommonly strong-willed girl, whether age 5 or ’tween or teen, to choose to compete on a boys’ team because that’s how badly she wants to improve. Rapinoe did that for a time in her youth, as did several of her U.S. teammates and national team predecessors, determined to push themselves any way possible to become great.
Had she bowed to convention instead at every pivot point in her development, Rapinoe wouldn’t be the athlete or person she is.