The United States women’s national team . Megan Rapinoe is playing in her last game for her country as the Americans meet South Africa in a friendly.
She makes her exit as one of the most recognizable names and faces in the world of sports. It didn’t happen overnight, and, in fact, the celebrity came much later in her career during her dazzling 2019 World Cup performance, but Rapinoe’s impact is so epic that it could not be contained to the pitch and it lives on in the many lives she’s changed off of it.
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That special brand of on-the-field excellence and off-the-field activism, all rolled into one absolutely inseparable ball, is what will forever define her. For me, nothing encapsulates that like a small, mostly forgotten moment when she called herself “a gay wad,” to me in the post-game press conference at the 2018 Tournament of Nations.
The USWNT were marching toward the 2019 World Cup and at the 2018 Tournament of Nations, Rapinoe was an integral part of leading them to victory with three assists and one goal over three games. It’s a performance that will always stick with me because she grabbed a rainbow pride flag from a fan and proceeded to celebrate on the podium with the team and their latest trophy. She explained what was up after the match.
“We’re not in pride month, but I’m gay, so pride month is every month. I wanted to also support our fans and support those people in that community — the LGBT community — that support us all the time and that was just a little nod to them, and I’m a big gay wad, so nod to me, too.”
You don’t get much more Rapinoe than that.
A soccer career full of highlights on and off the field
When Rapinoe announced that the 2023 FIFA World Cup would be her last tournament and she’d retire from professional soccer at the end of her club season, it gave us the timeline for a goodbye that eventually every pro makes at some point. But the stylish, cool-haired, lesbian, Olympic gold medalist, two-time World Cup champion, Ballon d’Or recipient, and Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree isn’t leaving the game as just any pro, she’s leaving it having made a permanent mark in global soccer and wider society.
. You can scan highlights of major international tournaments and find moments specific to Rapinoe — that’s her footprint as a player. You can even compile a list of off-field achievements tied to her activism and advocacy. It’s what she’s most proud of.
“By a mile,” she said.
She considers her 2012 gold medal and 2019 World Cup title as career highs, but rates off-field wins much higher. She’s reflective on her long national team career that includes tons of accolades in soccer, but massive wins for women in general.
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“Our fight off of the field. Obviously, equal pay being a big part of that. I think even in the years prior to that, being so vocal about racial justice and gay rights and just feeling like the team really stepped into a new era of itself and really, really, took upon itself to be so much more than what we were on the field,” she said.
“That was just like incredibly special. I don’t think anything could ever really live up to that. So, I think those are some of my best moments, in this jersey at least.”
Rapinoe’s public coming out in 2012 was a definitive moment in sports history. In a time where plenty of LGBTQ+ athletes live their lives privately, here’s a loud, brash, in-your-face platinum blond telling everyone her business. It was awesome. It made an entire population of the nation feel incredibly seen and likely helped thousands of young queer American youth feel comfortable within themselves.
It was also such a special thing to witness a woman living her best lesbian life with comfort and confidence, now with partner and WNBA legend Sue Bird by her side.
Her gains in sport and outside of it are forever linked because she could not and would not separate her gender or sexuality from being an athlete. She is all of that and more, all at the same time. She didn’t stop being a gay woman whenever she stepped on the pitch, just like she didn’t stop producing big footballing moments when she began more vocal and visible protest and activism later in her career.
In between trophies and awards, the national team program and its fans got to witness the evolution of a player and person. And, to be honest, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, obviously.
In a 2016 NWSL game in Bridgeview, Illinois, she famously knelt during the national anthem. Later, my colleague asked her if it was intentional and she told us after the match that it was in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and. She expressed her empathy with Kaepernick’s protest and drew parallels on issues that affect both the black and LGBTQ+ communities.
As a Chicago native and queer Latina from the southside, I was immediately skeptical. Who the heck did this privileged white woman think she was co-opting a black man’s protest and efforts to validate and protect his community? It was hard not to believe that this was not just performative. And, a complicating matter, I was also wary and afraid for the safety of one of the few out and gay sports athletes at the time.
And yet, as the years showed, her actions were clearly not simply a performance for an audience. There is no change without growth, and Rapinoe’s continued dedication to activism didn’t stop after that moment in 2016. It led U.S. Soccer to adopt a policy in 2017 (which they later voted to repeal in 2020 and issued an apology to “black players – staff, fans, and all who support eradicating racism”), requiring players to stand during the anthem and fewer call-ups to national team camps.
Despite limited appearances during 2017, she kept her club form up and was firmly part of the USWNT picture by 2018 as the team marched toward the 2019 World Cup.
“Finding the balance between saying something that needs to be said but also providing space for other people. That’s definitely something that I want to continue to learn and become a better listener and I don’t always need to be the one out front,” she said Saturday, speaking on her experiences navigating activism.
Being authentically yourself and constantly winning is legendary behavior and Rapinoe’s existence is exactly that. If the stick-to-sports crowd wants to stick to sports, then they should be full of praise for one of the most decorated players to ever represent the United States. And regardless of what they say, Rapinoe truly has demonstrated over the years that she just doesn’t care and that only adds to her legacy.
The 38-year-old player still has a club season to finish in NWSL with OL Reign. Her official retirement from the professional game won’t actually hit until the end of the season. Like most things, she’s embracing it with excitement and an open perspective. She’s looking forward to a more open schedule, and time for family and friends. Giving her body a rest is also a retirement priority and figuring out how she will still be involved in women’s sports in general.
“I’m looking forward to my schedule being a little bit more open. I’m also a little scared about that. It’s like, you know, we’re like toddlers in a lot of ways because we need the structure and the structure is nice, but we’ll have to figure out how to make that work on my own.
“Obviously, I know that this is an ending of one chapter but it feels very much like a beginning. I’m really excited about what’s to come and love where the game is at and where the sport is at and I think women’s sports in general, and the landscape around it, is in such an exciting place. I hope to continue to be a part of that in a really big way. Just on the other side of things.”
The game will always refresh itself, introducing the world to new talents,and players who will leave their mark. Whether it was Abby Wambach who was chasing Mia Hamm for the all-time American goal-scoring record or all the attention on the defensive mid role now that Julie Ertz has retired, there will always be the question of what comes next.
It’s a complex one to consider since in Rapinoe’s case, there are not just shoes to fill, but an entire silouete. In that sense, she’s a figure that should be admired and not replaced because there’s no replicating or replacing her. So here’s to new wins and the next wave of players coming up, finding their voice, all while being their most authentic selves.