I’ll be honest: the genre of sports memoir is a little, er, out of my league. The closest I’ve previously come to reading something sports-related is Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which of course is primarily about writing, not running.
But Megan Rapinoe’s memoir was one I simply could not resist. The professional soccer star who co-captained the US National Soccer Team to gold at the FIFA Women’s World Championships in 2015 and 2019 achieved stardom on the soccer field (which I do not follow), but has also forged a progressive reputation in the political field (which I do) for fearless and principled stands on issues like racism and LGBTQ rights. Wherever prominent Americans are speaking out for the rights of the marginalized her name inevitably appears. I was curious to square my limited familiarity with her politics with a deeper understanding of who she is as a person. Her new memoir One Life seemed the perfect conduit, and it did not disappoint.
Written with the aid of author and journalist Emma Brockes, One Life is attractive not for any literary pretensions but for its simple, honest storytelling. There’s a comforting down-to-earth quality to Rapinoe’s narrative. The youngest (along with her twin sister Rachael) in a family of eight, raised by hard-working middle-class parents in the semi-rural town of Redding, California, Rapinoe and her sister latched on to soccer at an early age. Road-trips and weekend practices kept them busy (and out of the grip of America’s opioid epidemic, which ensnared her older brother Brian: she discusses the epidemic and America’s penal industry at length in the book) and eventually sent them to the University of Portland on soccer scholarships. Rapinoe’s talent was such that she was quickly scouted by professional recruiters and selected for US National Teams, and the rest, as they say, is herstory.
Dots by geralt (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
Rapinoe’s story has plenty of what I’ve always imagined good sports memoirs to have: inspiring accounts of hard work and perseverance paying off; grappling with setbacks and defeat and redoubling one’s efforts so as to come back stronger. Rapinoe’s method of dealing with failure is simple and effective: learn from it and try harder. Her accounts of key games are told with a sense of well-paced action that even I (not usually a sports fan) found exciting.
But the training, hard work, and competitive spirit are coupled with what drew me to the book–an impassioned account of her political awakening and of why it’s important for professional athletes to use their platform to stand up for the voiceless and marginalized. Rapinoe realized she was a lesbian in her first year of university (the discovery filled her with a giddy excitement, and her account of this moment is priceless), but while she didn’t subsequently hide her sexuality it also wasn’t something she was explicitly public about. In this she was like many of her colleagues, she explains.
There are plenty of other lesbian professional athletes–including some of her teammates–but for years this wasn’t common public knowledge. In the wake of soccer’s rising popularity in America (the result in large part due to her team’s strong performance) this began to trouble Rapinoe. Although they were all suddenly in the public spotlight, the public didn’t seem to realize any of them were lesbian. It was on the flight home from the 2011 FIFA tournament in Germany, she recalls, that she decided it was time to take a more public position.
“Coming out, I understood now, was not a zero sum game, but more of a process. I wasn’t in the closet, but no one in the press knew I was gay and that aspect of my life wasn’t part of the conversation. Saying something now might be impactful…Not talking about my sexuality felt intuitively bad, like I was operating a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell, or flying deliberately under the radar. ‘I’m gay, and an athlete, and I just want to be out,’ I said. I looked down the aircraft at all the other gay players, most of them older than me. Why am I not out? I thought, impatiently. Why are we all not out?”
Rapinoe did come out. Not immediately, but over the next few months she began doing interviews about her sexuality and making it a more prominent part of her public persona. It saddened her, she writes, that so few of her lesbian teammates followed suit. Many of them took the position that their sexuality shouldn’t be a big deal. Why make a public issue out of it?
“This missed the point,” she writes. “If you’re a prominent athlete, coming out isn’t for yourself but for others. Until everyone can come out without it being a big deal, nobody gets to ‘just’ live their lives. And the more people who come out, the more we break down the stereotypes of what it is to be gay.”
It also made her acutely aware of her own privileges. Rapinoe maintains a matter-of-fact approach to humility throughout One Life. While aware that her success is the result of hard work, and acknowledging that her hard work has made her a great player, she also recognizes the many privileges she benefits from that made it possible for her to achieve success–supportive parents, the social capital of a white, working-class family, and so forth. This balanced understanding of the interplay between privilege and personal integrity also extends to her public coming out, and the fact she was so widely supported when she did.
“I also started to understand the privilege of coming out as a female athlete. I came out and it was applauded; that’s not the universal experience, or, probably, even the norm. For the first time, I began to realize it was about more than being gay, and that there were other factors at play. I was affluent and white, and I had a platform, all of which shaped people’s responses to me…I understood that people without my protections were struggling.”
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This, she emphasizes, is why it’s important for professional athletes and other prominent figures who benefit from similar protections to come out publicly and use their privilege for the broader social good.
Fighting for Equal Pay
Rapinoe provides a fascinating overview of other political struggles she and her colleagues have faced. Sexism in professional sport is one, and the book is riddled with examples. There’s the pay issue. Early in her career male soccer players in the US were being paid $5k just for losing a friendly match, while women received $1,350 for wins and nothing for ties or losses. From travel per diems to annual pay, women players were short-changed at every opportunity. In 2011, top-tier players for the women’s national team (ranked first in the world) earned almost 40 percent less than male national team players (ranked 35th in the world). Soccer players in the US earn consistently less than their millionaire colleagues in sports like baseball, basketball, or football, but even so male players were averaging annual salaries over a quarter of a million dollars while women players didn’t even break $100k. Even corporate sponsorship deals for female athletes involve a fraction of the money they do for male athletes.
Rapinoe relentlessly hammers home the need for pay equity. In the case of FIFA, the 2018 men’s World Cup had a prize pool of $400 million compared to $15 million for the 2015 women’s World Cup. Such figures are completely disproportionate to audience or media interest in women’s sports, Rapinoe observes: the men’s World Cup final had an audience of 1.1 billion including 14 million Americans compared to the women’s final’s 850 million viewers including 25 million Americans. The Women’s 2019 World Cup final was watched by 1.12 billion.
In the lead-up to the 2019 Women’s World Cup, FIFA sought to forestall criticism by announcing it was doubling the women’s prize pool to $30 million. This was not something to celebrate, Rapinoe explains.
“By using the magic phrase ‘doubling the money’ they seemed to think they’d so dazzle and overwhelm us that we wouldn’t notice there was still a $370 million shortfall with the men,” she writes. “‘I think they’re probably looking for pats on the back for the increase,’ I told journalists. ‘They’re not getting any from here. Fifteen million is nothing to them.'”
Fans agree. When the US team was awarded the World Cup after winning the championship match in the UK, the crowd responded by chanting “Equal Pay” at the FIFA president when he presented the trophy.
Sexism emerges in countless other ways as well. Women players are expected to bunk together and share rooms in tournaments (and even the Olympics), unlike their male counterparts. Curfews are stricter. Even playing conditions are more dangerous–women’s games are played on cheaper turf surfaces, making them more prone to debilitating injuries. Artificial turf has not been used in men’s games for over 80 years.
In the labour movement, a great deal of ink has been devoted to the struggle by grassroots activists to take back their unions from bureaucrats and restructure their movements in more democratic, grassroots fashion. Rapinoe offers a fascinating account of how women’s soccer players engage in a similar process. For years, collective agreements were negotiated primarily by lawyers for the respective sides, with few gains for the players despite growing dissatisfaction with their working conditions. Rapinoe explains that they didn’t allow their dissatisfaction to affect their play. They knew that the stronger they played and the more victories they won, the greater their bargaining power would be when it came time to use it.
The growing popularity of the game–a direct result of the underpaid women players’ labour–helped position them to make a stronger stand at the bargaining table. After their 2015 World Cup win–conveniently right before negotiations–the US women players reorganized their bargaining structure. Instead of just lawyers, they sent actual members directly into bargaining meetings. They realized it didn’t make sense to simply grant senior players all the senior positions in their union, as had been traditionally been the case. Instead, they reallocated positions based on organizing skills, allowing younger junior players to take key roles in areas they excelled at, whether it was media engagement or negotiating strategy.
It was very much a play-to-win approach to bargaining, putting the membership directly in charge of the process. They also engaged the public and media in an unprecedented way, thus reminding the owners who it was that made the sport both possible and profitable. By working to intensify public excitement around women’s soccer, they not only boosted profits for the owners but, more importantly, made themselves a visible and essential part of the process, making it more difficult for the management side to push back on their demands for equity.
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But push back their management did, to the point of sparking public outrage in 2019 with poorly articulated and antiquated arguments around women’s sports being less important and requiring less effort than men’s. Rapinoe emphasizes throughout her narrative the sexist lens which often frames not just women’s bargaining demands, but broader efforts by women to demand fair treatment and compensation. Being polite is not an effective response strategy, she says. It’s imperative to speak out and call out regressive behaviour–whether it’s sexism, racism, or homophobia–and to push back against narratives that criticize loud and outspoken voices.
“You have to be patient, people said; you have to wait for everyone to get on the same page as you. To which I say: Do we? Really? I don’t think basic human rights need to take time.”
Her philosophy extends to other causes as well. When she was named Sports Illustrated‘s Sportsperson of the Year in 2019, she used her acceptance speech to excoriate the magazine and sports journalism more generally for its poor performance on gender equity, and the low numbers of women writers employed in the field. She brushes off criticism with a confident tone.
“I’ve heard the phrase ‘bite the hand that feeds you,’ which makes me laugh; I don’t think of any hand as feeding me. And I don’t need permission from an awards panel to speak my mind…When I say something ‘rude,’ I think about who I am saying it for, not who I am saying it to.
“I am sure enough of my position to not sweat the reception. I don’t need them to like me to know I am right.”
Taking the Knee
Rapinoe also offers a fascinating first-hand view of the intense politics around efforts by professional athletes to join the broader protests against racism in America. An early participant in ‘kneeling’ protests (though not the first: she chronicles the gradual spread of the movement among different sports and athletes), she was stunned by the backlash, especially considering how warmly her activism around LGBTQ rights had been received.
“There is a particular kind of baffled outrage reserved by white people for other white people they consider to be ‘betraying’ their race,” she writes, and that includes not only members of the public but also the professional sports associations that have played such a shameful role in recent years working to uphold white supremacy by targeting players who protest racism. Rapinoe was sidelined by her coach and team management in response to her solidarity efforts with Black Americans, and her account of the difficult process of deciding when and where and how to protest is honest and insightful. She was disappointed that more of her colleagues–especially white athletes–didn’t join her stand. Some of her family, friends, and colleagues criticized her, saying she ought to be more ‘strategic’ about how to protest, lest people stop taking her seriously or take away her public platform.
“This criticism was an expression of privilege,” she writes. “For black people, the effects of protesting against police brutality couldn’t be mitigated through planning. For millions of Americans, there was no luxury of ‘choice’ around the issue of racism, and if my actions had caused stress among those for whom this wasn’t the case, maybe that was no bad thing.”
“I understood [other players] were afraid of losing their livelihoods. But when it came to stars of that magnitude, with that kind of wealth and power, fear of blowback just wasn’t an adequate excuse.”
During the lead-up to the 2019 FIFA championship, Rapinoe found herself in a social media crossfire with Trump after an interview aired in which she said she would refuse to visit the Trump White House, a routine practice for winning teams. This too was an act of solidarity. Although Rapinoe would ebulliently exclaim, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team!” to reporters after the US beat France in the quarterfinals, a point she emphasizes repeatedly is the intersectionality of rights struggles, and the need for persons of all identities to stand up for each other. An important part of her own political awakening was realizing the intersections of these struggles, and once she did, she also realized the impossibility of not standing up for others in their fight.
“There was no point campaigning for one cause without laying it on the line for another. When I came out, the support of the athletic community and the straight world more generally – the media, the sports world, the business world of my sponsors – was huge. Those who are discriminated against shouldn’t have to fight alone, and leaving advocacy to the marginalized group itself – the group most at risk of dismissal or reprisal – is, frankly, outrageous…You can’t defend gay people without understanding the threat posed to black people and other people of color by their enemies.”
This sensibility infuses her efforts on the sports field. Especially in the wake of Trump’s efforts to undermine democracy and his support for white supremacists, she says, “We were playing for diversity, democracy, inclusion. We were playing for the right to be different and to still be respected. We were playing for equal rights, equal pay, and the glory of the women’s game. We were playing to make an argument that winning didn’t mean stomping on anyone else, but doing everything you could to support them.”
One Life is a delightful read, whether it’s for the sports or the political insight. Rapinoe’s upbeat attitude–confident yet thoughtful, determined yet fun–echoes her performance on the field. It injects a welcome dose of courageous optimism in a world that desperately needs it. She closes by reminding readers that however overwhelming systemic injustice may seem, fighting it requires an individual choice made by each of us.
“Real change…is in the choices we make every day. It’s in how we talk, who we hire, and what we permit others to say in our presence. It’s in reading more, thinking more, considering a different perspective. At its simplest, it’s in whether we’re willing to spend even five minutes a day thinking about how we can make the world better.”