Megan Rapinoe Won’t Go Quietly

20 minute read

Megan Rapinoe thrives on noise. Most athletes strive to be “in the zone”—that state of quiet mental focus enabling players to block out the cheers and jeers of stadium crowds, allowing performance to peak. Rapinoe, however, takes in all the chatter. “I’m hearing the crowds, I’m hearing the fans,” she says. The two-time defending World Cup champion forward for the U.S. is reclining on a restaurant couch in Seattle, where she plays for the OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), wearing rhinestone-studded jeans and a tricolored shirt—white, red, and black—with a flower pattern running down the sleeves. “Every time I go over for a corner kick,” says Rapinoe, “I’m always like, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’”

Photograph by Danielle Levitt for TIME

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Rapinoe’s embrace of commotion has defined her career. She’s one of the most talked-about American athletes of our time, a 5-ft. 7-in. whirling dervish of resistance who, depending on whom you ask, is either an unapologetic symbol of on-field excellence and off-field progress or a disrespectful heel. (Or, if misogyny or homophobia is your bag, worse.) More than a decade ago, she came out as gay, giving many other female sports figures permission to be more open about their sexuality. She has since worked tirelessly as an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community—she’s the brightest athletic star currently leading a fight against the proliferation of U.S. state laws that ban transgender youth from playing on teams consistent with their gender identity. Rapinoe has also knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and led a protracted but ultimately successful battle against her own soccer federation to ensure equal pay for female players. After Donald Trump criticized her during the 2019 World Cup, she scored against France and struck a now iconic pose that reminded the then President, and her vociferous critics, that she’s going absolutely nowhere.

Last year, Joe Biden awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. She’s the first soccer player so recognized.

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Rapinoe is entering her fourth and final World Cup, which kicks off July 20 in the dual host nations of Australia and New Zealand and promises to be the best-attended and most-viewed women’s sporting event in history. She announced on July 8 that she will retire at the end of the 2023 NWSL season. Rapinoe will likely play a more muted on-field role, as a reserve and veteran mentor for younger players on the U.S. team, which is seeking to make history as the first squad, women’s or men’s, to win three consecutive World Cup titles. Injuries to several prominent U.S. players, however, could call Rapinoe, who turned 38 in early July, into action. A repeat of her brilliant 2019 performance is unlikely, but no longer impossible.

Megan Rapinoe receiving the medal of freedom from President biden
Receiving the Presidential medal of freedom in 2022Alex Wong—Getty Images

No matter how Rapinoe fares at the tournament, she’s secured her place as one of the world’s most influential athletes. Her creative and joyful play helped elevate women’s soccer to the status of appointment viewing. Female players around the world have followed the example of Rapinoe and her teammates and waged pay fights against their federations. She created a blueprint for female athletes: Tap into your truest self and demand what’s yours. Lay waste to the notion of being agreeable.

“In the past, a lot of female athletes—in our generation, for sure—were told to sit down, to be quiet, to be grateful,” says former U.S. soccer player Julie Foudy, one of the stars of the 1999 World Cup–winning national team, whose victory helped bring women’s sports into the consciousness of many fans. “What Rapinoe has brought to the equation is the idea of we’re going to have to boldly disrupt. History has shown that women like her lead people over that line. She hasn’t given a rat’s ass what people think. This is who she is, and what she does. There’s freedom to that.”

From her earliest days, Rapinoe was a tempestuous force. She grew up in Redding, Calif., a remote pocket of red in deep-blue California some 140 miles north of Sacramento. Her father Jim worked as a building contractor; her mother Denise was a waitress at Jack’s Grill, a local steak house, for 36 years; she retired on June 30. “When she was convinced she needed something, and my parents wouldn’t give it to her, she would hold her breath until she passed out,” says her twin sister Rachael. On Megan’s left hand is a tattoo reading “Mammers”—a nickname for Denise. Her right-hand ink reads “Ma Barker”—a nickname her grandfather gave her, much to her mother’s chagrin, after the matriarch of a criminal gang, because of her tantrums.

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Her parents would shuttle the girls five hours, round trip, to travel to team practices in the Sacramento area. They both received athletic scholarships to the University of Portland and won a national championship. From Megan’s initial tours with the national team, her approach stood out. In one training session, she crossed the ball behind her plant leg, a bit of fancy footwork that earned her a reprimand from one of her veteran teammates. Keep it simple, the vet said. After practice, however, Rapinoe insisted to Abby Wambach—the all-time leading goal scorer in U.S. history—that she made the perfect play. “She’s not wrong,” says Wambach. “Megan is always trying to creatively figure out what’s the best way, the most fun way, to get the job done.”

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At the 2011 World Cup, Rapinoe’s cross to Wambach, this time in front of her plant leg, as per tradition, late in a quarter-final game against Brazil kept America’s chances alive. (The U.S. ultimately lost to Japan in the final.) At the London Olympics the next year, where the U.S. won gold, Rapinoe scored two goals in an epic 4-3 semifinal victory over Canada, including a goal scored directly off a corner kick, known as an “Olimpico” in soccer circles. She was the first to notch an Olimpico at the Olympics.

Rapinoe played a key role in the 2015 U.S. World Cup win in Canada, the country’s first title since 1999. But her career came to a crossroads a year later when she became the first white professional athlete to kneel during the national anthem. “It felt like this is what Colin was asking for,” Rapinoe says. To this day, Rapinoe believes that if white NFL players, especially fellow quarterbacks like Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, had knelt to support Kaepernick, he’d still be playing. “Everything looks different, 100%,” she says.

The blowback was immediate, violent, and visceral, Rachael recalls. Rapinoe received death threats. Jack’s management took down a montage of her photos behind the bar. Patrons sought out Denise to voice their displeasure. “Men can be really abrasive about it,” says Denise. One guy told her, “We love you. But I just wish Megan was different.” Denise replied, “Megan is just perfect the way she is.” The man grew angry and grabbed Denise’s arm before his wife and another couple settled him down.

After Rapinoe knelt before a national-team game vs. Thailand, U.S. Soccer put out a statement tsk-tsking her without naming names: “We have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.” At the next game, the crowd in Atlanta booed her when she entered as a second-half sub. She was told not to dress for the two games that followed. According to Rapinoe, coach Jill Ellis blamed the benching on her fitness. In early 2017, Rapinoe was left off the roster for the annual SheBelieves Cup held in the U.S. “No one is going to say this,” says Rapinoe, “but I feel like they were happy to just let me go out to pasture.” (U.S. Soccer declined to comment.)

Megan Rapinoe in the locker room of the Interbay Stadium in Seattle
Rapinoe at Interbay Soccer Stadium in Seattle on June 5Danielle Levitt for TIME

Around this time, Rapinoe started dating WNBA star Sue Bird, now her fiancée. Bird is five years Rapinoe’s senior, and diligent in her nutrition and training habits. These weren’t Rapinoe’s strengths. During her national-team exile, Rapinoe started following Bird’s regimen. “The silver lining was, she had a big chunk of time to really work on her soccer self and get into peak shape,” says Bird, who retired at the end of the 2022 WNBA season, at 41, and whose Seattle Storm jersey now hangs in the rafters. “She came back and balled out.”

During the 2019 World Cup, the soccer publication Eight by Eight released a video from earlier that year of Rapinoe saying that if the U.S. team won the title, she wouldn’t go “to the f-cking White House.” Trump retaliated with a tweetstorm questioning Rapinoe’s patriotism and imploring her to “WIN first before she TALKS.”

Rapinoe’s remarks sparked a fresh wave of hate. Even Bird’s sister received an ominous text message demanding she instruct Bird to “tell her girlfriend to shut the f-ck up.” In the team’s next game, a quarter-final clash in Paris against France, Rapinoe opened the scoring on a gorgeous free kick: she jogged to the corner, extended both arms while staring up into the screaming crowd, and flashed a—her words—“sh-t-eating grin.” Trump was on the brain. “If I could have done this …” she says with a laugh, mimicking the celebration, and extending a middle finger. “Could you just imagine?”

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To Rapinoe, who would win the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player, the gesture also carried a deeper message. “You can’t stop progress,” she says. “No matter how hard you try. Out of nowhere, this freakin’ purple-haired lesbian is going to come in and be like, F-ck you.”

Rapinoe’s pet theory is that Trump is secretly a fan. “You know he was watching that game,” she says. “You know he had his McDonald’s lined up. And he was probably like, ‘You know what, I love that.’ I always felt Trump loved me.” Rapinoe insists—and a U.S. Soccer official confirms—the Trump White House back-channeled an invite, which the team declined. (Spokespeople for the Trump 2024 campaign did not return a request for comment.)

In fact, Rapinoe is convinced she has fewer haters than most people think. “I’m exactly what they’re familiar and comfortable with, just packaged up differently,” Rapinoe says. “But I’m exactly the brash, arrogant athlete that Americans love.”

After winning a second straight World Cup, Rapinoe and her teammates turned their attention to another goal: establishing equal pay with the men. The players had filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer before the World Cup, and America’s victory galvanized a movement. Chants of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” filled the Stade de Lyon after the team knocked off the Netherlands in the final. After a ticker-tape parade in New York City, Rapinoe endorsed then U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro near the steps of City Hall. “I think he’s going to make things right,” she said. Thousands of fans, who minutes before had jeered Cordeiro as he spoke, screamed their approval. At that moment, Rapinoe could have persuaded that crowd to vote for Trump, if she wanted. Hell, she could have run for President herself. She was the most famous woman in America.

Which made it so surprising that Cordeiro mispronounced her name. In his own speech that day, he called her RAP-in-o instead of the proper Ra-PINO. “Carlos had the biggest bag fumble of all time,” Rapinoe says now. “Just cringey.” This mishap turned out to be minor compared with what was to come. In March 2020, U.S. Soccer filed a brief arguing against equal pay on the basis of men being stronger, faster, and bearing “more responsibility” in their roles. Yes, U.S. Soccer launched a defense—in a gender-discrimination suit—that came across as quite sexist. “I remember being gobsmacked,” says Rapinoe. “You cannot possibly be this dumb. Thank you for that. Because this is not going to play well.” The federation’s sponsors flipped out, and Cordeiro resigned a day later. (Cordeiro, now senior adviser to the FIFA president, declined to comment.)

US womens national soccer team at the city hall parade in 2019
Rapinoe, center, celebrates the 2019 World Cup at a New York City paradeIra L. Black—Corbis/Getty Images

Still, on May 1, the women faced a legal setback: a U.S. district judge in California rejected the argument that the women were underpaid relative to the men. Rapinoe, however, swears she still believed the team would prevail. “Our lack of real depth of understanding of the legal system was probably our greatest tool,” she says. “The normal mentality of athletes is, ‘OK, you lose, what’s next?’ It never seemed over.”

She called it correctly. A little more than two years after that decision, U.S. Soccer and the players’ associations for the men’s and women’s teams announced a historic collective-bargaining agreement that will run through 2028. The women and men would receive identical compensation for national-team competitions, while also splitting FIFA World Cup prize money equally, becoming the first federation to do so. Although it was a team effort, Rapinoe’s voice had been out front. “She’s demanded that women’s sports no longer be treated as a sideshow to men’s sports,” says Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat. “It echoes everywhere. When Megan stood up and exposed what was going on in women’s soccer with unequal pay, she told 13-year-old girls all around the world that they didn’t have to accept second-class citizenship.”

Lydia Sheeser would know. She began her freshman year of high school soon after the U.S. women won in 2019. That fall, inspired by Rapinoe and the team, four of Sheeser’s teammates on the Burlington High School girls’ soccer team removed their jerseys after a goal to reveal the #EqualPay shirts they were wearing underneath. All four of them received yellow cards. The team then raised more than $100,000 selling shirts and worked with a Vermont nonprofit to distribute funds for scholarships and sports access for girls from underserved communities. Sheeser will attend Lehigh University in the fall, on a scholarship for students advancing gender equity. “Megan Rapinoe has completely changed my life,” she says. “The lessons of self-advocacy I have learned through this movement are going to be a huge tool.”

Rapinoe has shared that toolbox with the world. Since the U.S. team first filed an EEOC complaint against its federation in 2016, a host of women’s national teams—including those of Norway, New Zealand, Brazil, Australia, England, Ireland, Spain, Israel, and the Netherlands—have signed equal-pay agreements. Canada’s women’s team inked an interim deal this year while its players continue to fight for equal pay in a new collective-bargaining agreement. “There’s been no national team in the world that has really believed they deserve equality before everything that happened in the U.S.,” says Karin Sendel, chairman of the Israel Football Players Organization. “And then there’s this domino. You need a leader like Megan.”

With equal pay on the books, Rapinoe has shifted her focus to trans-rights advocacy. She’s particularly contemptuous of policies designed to keep transgender girls and women from playing on female sports teams. “We as a country are trying to legislate away people’s full humanity,” she says. Proponents of such laws often claim they’re protecting women’s sports. “It’s particularly frustrating when women’s sports is weaponized,” she says. “Oh, now we care about fairness? Now we care about women’s sports? That’s total bullsh-t. And show me all the trans people who are nefariously taking advantage of being trans in sports. It’s just not happening.”

To Rapinoe, the benefits of allowing trans kids to play outweigh any supposed costs. “The most amazing thing about sports is that you play and you’re playing with other people, and you’re having fun and you’re being physically active,” she says. “We’re putting this all through the lens of competition and winning. But we’re talking about people’s lives. That’s where we have to start.”

Rapinoe believes that questioning transgender participation in women’s sports, as Martina Navratilova and ESPN anchor Sage Steele have done, does harm that reaches far beyond the athletic field. “I don’t want to mince words about it,” she says. “Dave Chappelle making jokes about trans people directly leads to violence, whether it’s verbal or otherwise, against trans people. When Martina or Sage or whoever are talking about this, people aren’t hearing it just in the context of elite sports. They’re saying, ‘The rest of my life, this is how I’m going to treat trans people.’”

Would Rapinoe embrace a transgender woman on the U.S. women’s soccer team, even if that woman took the place of someone assigned female at birth? “Absolutely,” she says. “‘You’re taking a “real” woman’s place,’ that’s the part of the argument that’s still extremely transphobic. I see trans women as real women. What you’re saying automatically in the argument—you’re sort of telling on yourself already—is you don’t believe these people are women. Therefore, they’re taking the other spot. I don’t feel that way.”

The night before Rapinoe and I met in Seattle, U.S. forward Mallory Swanson, the national team’s leading goal scorer this year, tore her left patella tendon. She’d be out for the World Cup. “Horrible,” Rapinoe says as we sit down. While she expresses sincere sympathy for Swanson, she admits her competitive instincts kicked in. “I’m not gonna be like, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought about it,’” says Rapinoe. “Her minutes are going to have to go somewhere.” Rapinoe will likely get more time off the bench, especially if the U.S. needs a second-half spark. “There’s nobody better with the ball at their feet than Megan Rapinoe,” says Fox Sports studio analyst Alexi Lalas.

The team is entering a period of transition. Veteran stars like Rapinoe and Alex Morgan will still contribute. But if the U.S. is going to secure the three-peat, a new crop of talent—featuring World Cup rookies like Lynn Williams, Sophia Smith, and Trinity Rodman—will have to step up. Experienced players like Swanson, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Sam Mewis can’t play because they’re hurt. Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle have dealt with nagging injuries in the World Cup run-up.

“There’s just a lot of question marks,” says former U.S. star Carli Lloyd, who’ll be working for Fox Sports during this World Cup. “If a player is not really fit and healthy right now, it’s going to be really hard. Because when that whistle blows in a World Cup, it’s not like friendly games. Opposing players are sharp, they’re ready.”

Megan Rapinoe strikes a pose after scoring in the 2019 World Cup Final
Striking her pose after scoring in the 2019 World Cup FinalRichard Heathcote—Getty Images

The global growth of women’s soccer will act as another obstacle to a three-peat. Australia’s Sam Kerr, for example, is a lethal scorer and will enjoy home-field advantage. France and Brazil are hungry to win their first titles. Last year’s European Championship, hosted by England, set all kinds of attendance and viewership records. England beat Germany, 2-1, in a thrilling final in front of 87,192 fans at Wembley Stadium. “They got their little taste of winning,” says Rapinoe. “I was like, ‘Dammit.’ It was like a page out of our playbook. Well played. And you’re welcome.” The U.S. defeated England in the 2019 World Cup semi: Morgan memorably mimicked sipping tea after scoring, setting off a bit of a row. “Yeah, I would imagine if we meet each other again this time, there will be a healthy amount of, if not explicit, then implicit, trash talking,” says Rapinoe. “For sure.”

The specifics of Rapinoe’s post–World Cup, post-soccer plans are less certain. She’s already started a production company, called A Touch More, with Bird that “centers stories of revolutionaries who move culture forward.” Despite her political engagement, she says she’ll never run for office. She talks about being a “mogul for women’s sports, a mogul for good.”

Whatever she does, don’t expect her to fade away. Even after she hangs up her spikes, Rapinoe, the bold, loud changemaker who lives for the big moments, will still seek out the noise. “I have this incredible privilege and platform and hope that I can turn that into rocket fuel for the next phase of everything,” she says. “I want to make the world a better place. And I will pull that lever slowly, relentlessly, and ruthlessly, forever.”



Styled by Alvin Stillwell; hair and make-up by Kaija Towner

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