Megan Rapinoe and her unapologetically sinewy colleagues make you forget politics and categories. These are no first-wave, third-wave, millennial, post-colonial, post-structural, modern-eco marchers, boneless and aggrieved. Protesters aren’t supposed to be this ungrim and prancing, are they? There was Rapinoe, exulting in her pure, self-driven dynamism and radiant in her cause, striking that pose like Diana Prince discovering she’s Wonder Woman: “I have no father. I was brought to life by Zeus!”
It’s time to discard, finally, the nagging, jersey-tugging, chronic, small-minded doctrine that we must “contextualize” everything the U.S. women’s national team does as “relative” to the men’s game, and therefore they must be smaller, lesser. Sweet kicking Jesus, what titans these players are. Mental giants who show up big under unimaginably hot lights of controversy. Drivers of explosive new TV ratings, not just in America but in France, England, Germany, Brazil, Italy, with a billion viewers predicted by the end of the tournament.
All they’ve done is basically build a worldwide sport in less than two decades. The NFL needed 100 years to get into the public consciousness this way, the NBA 75. How about, just once, we marvel at what this women’s program has accomplished without all the “yeah buts.”
In a way, the tired old equity debates in women’s sports have always been misplaced, off point, anyway. As Germaine Greer has asked, “Equality — with what?” The lame idea of sameness is actually a “profoundly conservative goal” for women. Replicating male sports structures with their baked-in disenfranchisement of athletes in favor of “owners,” with their lousy assumptions and values, has never been what the women in the U.S. soccer program were really interested in. That’s not why team captain Julie Foudy first consulted with Billie Jean King back in 1999 about how to game-change. “The Kinger,” Foudy calls her, with that easy irreverence that always has been the program’s signature.
They’re after something far, far more subversive than just better pay. Ever since Brandi Chastain whipped off her jersey and displayed her “Fight Club” torso back in 1999, the audience has understood this team as revolutionary. They’re more than just plaintiffs suing over discrimination. They play the game as a form of incursion, as a battle for female sovereignty, and so the stakes have always been higher for them than just the final score. This creates chronic pressure to perform at the highest level, and they deal with and even welcome that pressure as a valuable trial in its own right.
“Some teams will visit pressure,” Coach Jill Ellis said so eloquently. “But we live there.”
Instead of wilting, they use it, to develop a deep culture of sustained excellence that male deciders always seem to be talking about in how-to leadership books but so rarely create, instead producing toxic workplaces. Four Olympic gold medals and three World Cup titles since 1991. You want a comparison with male teams? How about the New England Patriots or Green Bay Packers? They’re the only ones that really apply.
“Rapinoe is the truth,” Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes tweeted.
Not that she needed his approval, but it’s interesting the respect this team gets from male superstars.
What they’ve really been after, all these years, is the seeding of a whole new generation of female heroes, who can turn a president’s criticism into a grass stain. Rapinoe “should WIN first before she talks!” President Trump tweeted. All she did in response was deck him in his golf gut with two breathtaking goals in the World Cup quarterfinals and pose for the thundering crowd like a Pavlova.
“Purple-Haired Lesbian Goddess Flattens France Like A Crepe” read the headline on Deadspin. Afterward, her partner, Sue Bird, the immortal WNBA point guard, posted an Instagram video of Rapinoe to the song “Walk It, Talk It,” along with a cartoon of Trump’s face.
Now, whatever your politics, admit it: You’ve never in your life seen anyone handle herself so lightly under the burden of performance.
Real power is self-ownership — uncomplaining, unwhining pleasure in self-fashioning and rejecting victimhood. That’s what Rapinoe has, and it’s worth admiring no matter how much you may disagree with her specifics. The audience senses the strength of that self-ownership, and it’s why that audience keeps growing no matter Rapinoe’s trip-wire quarrels with the White House, or her self-professed “fabulous” gayness, or her expletives. Rapinoe did with Trump what an entire league of billionaire NFL owners couldn’t. She handled that guy.
Whether Rapinoe and company win on the equal-pay issue is actually irrelevant to their status. They don’t need to win a court battle; they’ve already conquered the world. Pay in women’s sports will be an ongoing quixotic battle, for the simple reason that FIFA, just like the International Olympic Committee and the NCAA, is a fundamentally corrupt machine that cheats all athletes of their rightful revenue, and merely women worse than all the rest.
The men’s World Cup is 90 years old, so it’s not surprising that it has commanded four times the viewership of the women’s event. But as Marina Hyde of the Guardian pointed out last week, that hardly justifies why FIFA hands men 13 times the prize money. There is no curing these rotten old financial abusers or winning real justice from them. Only the criminal authorities can do that.
This team is pursuing an insurrection in which its opponents are actually its secret teammates, in which the bureaucratic controls over the marketplace by a bunch of corrupt suit jackets can be blown to bits by a massive new international population of muscular young women who play for one another, for their own reasons and approval, building on their own new inimitable brand of strength, and who have an ownership that no one can touch.
FIFA and U.S. Soccer may pay this team, but they do not run it or rule it. They never have and never will. It is the first truly woman-owned franchise in sports history.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.