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OPINION: Megan Rapinoe’s activism is part of what makes her North America’s greatest soccer player

Less than five minutes into the quarterfinal match of the 2019 FIFA World Cup, Megan Rapinoe buried the first goal of the game. The U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) co-captain scored again later in the match to overtake France 2-1 and advance to the semi-finals. It was a day that marked the beginning of one of Rapinoe’s most notable years yet. The midfielder not only went on to help her team win the championship, but she also brought home the tournament’s Golden Boot, Golden Ball and World Cup Final Player of the Match. Not long after, she won both the Ballon d’Or Féminin, The Best FIFA Women’s Player and Sports Illustrated’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year.

Megan Rapinoe is North America’s current greatest soccer player. It’s a subjective statement, and yes, Christine Sinclair has the most international career goals, and sure, many would argue there is no footballer more well-rounded on the pitch than USWNT Player of the Year Julie Ertz, but there is one factor that makes Rapinoe particularly important: the player she is off the field.

In every situation where a large audience is listening, whether it’s in an acceptance speech or filling her Twitter page, the midfielder takes the opportunity to speak up about equality and empowerment. This is a woman who does not back down, a woman who is asked if she’s excited about going to the White House and responds with, “Pffft, I’m not going to the f***ing White House.”

The world is filled with altruistic, philanthropist athletes who use their privilege to better the world in some way, and most of them are doing it well. They have their fires going and they add wood to the flames when they need to. Rapinoe, on the other hand, has a bonfire. Some might argue she spends more time talking about social justice than she does about soccer.

“We have to love more, hate less,” Rapinoe explained during her speech at the World Cup parade. “We’ve got to listen more and talk less. We gotta know that this is everyone’s responsibility; every single person here, every single person who’s not here, every single person who doesn’t want to be here, every single person who agrees and doesn’t agree. It’s our responsibility to make this world a better place.”

Her recent off-the-field initiatives include weekly Instagram Live chats with politicians and journalists, including Joe Biden and W. Kamau Bell, to talk about topics such as racism, how the government is handling COVID-19, the direction of the Democratic party, and much more; leading her team through the USWNT vs. U.S. Soccer lawsuit over equal pay and gender equality; and launching a new, consciously manufactured brand called rɘ-inc, which strives to help followers find clothes, art and other merchandise that empower who they are and not the status quo.

Rapinoe started to gain national attention for her activism when she kneeled during the national anthem at an international match in September 2016 to support the actions of the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick. Though she was booed by her own fans, and some teammates admitted to being uncomfortable with Rapinoe’s kneeling, the now-34-year old has remained open and unapologetic for making public moves that encourage social change.

Yes, pulling politics into her sport has inevitably caused many people to get upset. Can’t soccer just be about soccer? Shouldn’t it be a place for the world to unite and forget about everyone’s differences? Of course it should, which is why Rapinoe feels the need to speak up. Many athletes and fans consistently face discrimination, especially racism, sexism and homophobia. EVERYONE in the sports community has a job to make it a welcoming place for each other. Much of the progress is influenced by well-known players with large followings stepping up to push their sport to be more inclusive. Thank goodness we have finally have Rapinoe to passionately and bluntly tell people all of this.

“Lend your platform to other people. Lift other people up. Share your success,” Rapinoe told the audience of world-class players during her acceptance speech after receiving 2019 Best FIFA Women’s Player.

In recent years, the rest of the USWNT has become more open about fighting for social justice. As the squad’s co-captain, Rapinoe does her best to continue her leadership when off the field.

“I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending [their] 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,” Rapinoe told reporters last year.

All 28 players on the roster took part in filing the equal pay lawsuit against U.S. Soccer last year, and the entire team regularly stands up for LGBT rights, which has included wearing “Pride” game jerseys with rainbow numbers on the back.

Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. women’s national team will undoubtedly gain more popularity across North America as they continue to grow their program and fight for a better platform as female athletes. Both on and off the field, Rapinoe will continually keep us guessing, “What’s she going to do next?” Her drive to keep moving her game and the world forward is what makes her North America’s greatest soccer player.

Featured photo credit: CNN

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