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Megan Rapinoe is in celebration mode. And she’s got some things to say.

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In purely competitive terms, Megan Rapinoe and the United States national women’s soccer team achieved a monumental victory at this summer’s World Cup — the squad was never seriously threatened. Yet what was happening off the field was perhaps even more significant. Rapinoe, one of the captains, and her teammates swept through the tournament while in the midst of suing their own country’s soccer federation over gender discrimination; while taking on President Trump as a symbolic opponent after it was revealed that Rapinoe said, before the games began, using colorful language, that she would decline a White House visit should the team win (in reply, President Trump ramped up the pressure by tweeting, essentially, put up or shut up); and while competing against perhaps the strongest group of women’s teams ever assembled. Rapinoe herself was awarded the tournament’s Golden Boot as its top goal-scorer and the Golden Ball as its best player, becoming an activist-athlete icon in the process. “For girls now, it’s amazing to see different types of women come to power,” Rapinoe, who recently signed a book deal with Penguin, says. "I feel like I got there from the outside because I’m an athlete.” She adds, grinning: “And now people are like, ‘Oh, gosh, she’s in here and we can’t get her out.’”

How much do you think your being who you are — an unabashedly out gay woman — contributed to the team’s feeling like such a lightning rod during the World Cup? If it had been another player who rejected the White House, the story might have been very different. I can’t imagine that for the people who were upset, my being a pink-haired, unapologetically flaming gay lesbian was sitting well. They were probably like, “Oh, you’re so in our face!” Rather than being a regular white girl in the 1 percent, I have a totally different perspective on things, and it’s the basis for all the activism that I do. I don’t feel like I’ve experienced a lot of homophobia or people hanging out of windows calling me a fag or anything, but being gay has shaped my life’s view.

Tell me more about that activism. People know about you and gender equality, and maybe they know about your anthem protests, but what else are you fighting for specifically? In this incredible moment that I have, I would like to use this platform to unify people. That doesn’t mean get everybody to the left, but I want to bring everybody to the conversation, and the basis of it is equal rights. My big, I don’t know, “message” right now is that every person has a responsibility to be a participant in this society and make it a better place for everybody, in whatever capacity they can. And I’m just trying to do the best that I can to inspire people to feel confident that they have the ability to be an active participant in this country, in their community, in their family. And having hard conversations is the only way we can start to move forward.

How much do you think your being who you are — an unabashedly out gay woman — contributed to the team’s feeling like such a lightning rod during the World Cup?If it had been another player who rejected the White House, the story might have been very different. I can’t imagine that for the people who were upset, my being a pink-haired, unapologetically flaming gay lesbian was sitting well. They were probably like, “Oh, you’re so in our face!” Rather than being a regular white girl in the 1 percent, I have a totally different perspective on things, and it’s the basis for all the activism that I do. I don’t feel like I’ve experienced a lot of homophobia or people hanging out of windows calling me a fag or anything, but being gay has shaped my life’s view.

Tell me more about that activism. People know about you and gender equality, and maybe they know about your anthem protests, but what else are you fighting for specifically? In this incredible moment that I have, I would like to use this platform to unify people. That doesn’t mean get everybody to the left, but I want to bring everybody to the conversation, and the basis of it is equal rights. My big, I don’t know, “message” right now is that every person has a responsibility to be a participant in this society and make it a better place for everybody, in whatever capacity they can. And I’m just trying to do the best that I can to inspire people to feel confident that they have the ability to be an active participant in this country, in their community, in their family. And having hard conversations is the only way we can start to move forward.

 

How much do you think your being who you are — an unabashedly out gay woman — contributed to the team’s feeling like such a lightning rod during the World Cup? If it had been another player who rejected the White House, the story might have been very different. I can’t imagine that for the people who were upset, my being a pink-haired, unapologetically flaming gay lesbian was sitting well. They were probably like, “Oh, you’re so in our face!” Rather than being a regular white girl in the 1 percent, I have a totally different perspective on things, and it’s the basis for all the activism that I do. I don’t feel like I’ve experienced a lot of homophobia or people hanging out of windows calling me a fag or anything, but being gay has shaped my life’s view.

Tell me more about that activism. People know about you and gender equality, and maybe they know about your anthem protests, but what else are you fighting for specifically? In this incredible moment that I have, I would like to use this platform to unify people. That doesn’t mean get everybody to the left, but I want to bring everybody to the conversation, and the basis of it is equal rights. My big, I don’t know, “message” right now is that every person has a responsibility to be a participant in this society and make it a better place for everybody, in whatever capacity they can. And I’m just trying to do the best that I can to inspire people to feel confident that they have the ability to be an active participant in this country, in their community, in their family. And having hard conversations is the only way we can start to move forward.

When it became clear that the conversation around the World Cup wasn’t just about soccer or gender equality but also had the added political element of your conflict with the president, were you anxious about being at the center of that? I made the choice to participate in the political discourse a long time ago.Obviously  tweets from the president ratcheted everything up by a million, but I feel very comfortable talking about politics, so I don’t think it was a conscious decision of getting involved or not. I understood the gravity of what was happening, and I realized that it needed to be balanced with performance and making sure the team was good and not distracted.

Did the team’s internal dynamics require any managing on your part as the controversy was playing out? I don’t think anyone was like, “I’m going to the White House.”

That surprises me, actually. Just statistically, you’d think there’d be one teammate who’d be open to visiting President Trump at the White House. I haven’t done the roll call, but I don’t think anybody’s interested. It was almost a bit of comic relief because it was so ridiculous that the president would tweet at me. Everyone was like, “Are you O.K.?” Then, when they could see that I was handling it fine, they were like, “This is insane.” And our performances backed everything up. The team was dominating. We always have a lot of pressure and stuff being said about us good and bad and otherwise. So the controversy was honestly more like, “This is wild.”

But when the president tweeted — “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Win it.” I know, dude. Thanks, Trump. Thanks for the support.

Did his comments make you feel any extra pressure to win? Not really. I don’t think that there could be any more pressure. The reasons that we want to win are so deep and dynamic and layered. I mean, we sued the federation before going into the World Cup. We realize how much winning matters. We could have not won and come back and still helped grow the game, but we understand that if we win, everything changes. That was the more unifying pressure.

Aside from the president, how much were you aware of your other critics? I never was a person to get into my mentions or read comments. I think the experience that I had after kneeling during the anthem was vital. That was the most solid moment in my life where I was like, I know that this is very controversial, I understand why people are upset and I’m going to continue to talk about it. People were saying the craziest things. I don’t know how serious the threats were, but there were purported threats. I actually felt like the reactions I’d gotten were the perfect answer to the protest, because people weren’t upset about my talking about police brutality or racial injustice or the criminal-justice system. They were upset about all these other things: It’s disrespectful. This is not the appropriate place to protest. You’re not with the veterans. You’re not with the police. So it became extremely clear that this conversation needed to happen.

Rapinoe kneeling before a match during the playing of the national anthem in 2016. Jamie Sabau/Getty Images 

I watched you on Anderson Cooper’s show, and you said you were only looking to talk with politicians who “believe in the same things that we believe in.” Don’t people have a responsibility to at least try to talk with those who don’t agree with them? Isn’t that part of how change happens? A lot of people have said, “Why don’t you make a demand of the president that he’ll sit down and talk with you if go to the White House?” But I’m not going to be naïve and think that I’m going to sit down with Trump and he’s going to change his mind. There are children locked up at the border who are dying, and that’s not fazing him. So why would I faze him?

Do you have any sympathy for the idea that sports should be a nonpolitical oasis? I don’t understand that argument at all. You want us to be role models for your kids. You want us to endorse your products. You parade us around. It’s like, we’re not just here to sit in the glass case for you to look at. That’s not how this is going to go. Yeah, I don’t [expletive] with that concept at all.

I’m curious: Where did the arms-wide goal celebration you were doing during the World Cup come from? It was probably born out of a little arrogance. Like, are you not entertained? What more do you want? And it was sort of saying to Trump — but more to detractors in general — that you will not steal our joy from us as a team, as the L.G.B.T.Q. community, as America. It was kind of a [expletive] you, but nice.

I interpreted it as meaning something like, “This is me, bring it on.” Yeah. What’s the term? Give me all the smoke? Is that what the kids are saying? Like, “I’m right here for it, ready to clap back.”

Have you always been so self-confident? I started that way. Then in middle school and high school it got really awkward. Gender roles started to be a thing, and I didn’t know that I was gay, frankly, until I was in college.

 Until then I was like, Everything feels weird. I think being gay, it’s like you’re not going to ever be normal, so you don’t have rules, and if you don’t have to follow any rules, all bets are off. A lot of my confidence comes from that, from not feeling societal pressure to be anything other than what I want to be. My natural disposition is to have confidence, but certainly, figuring out that I was gay, I was like, Oh, God! Looking back, it’s embarrassing because, duh.
Rapinoe at age 11 or 12. From Megan Rapinoe

What was it about college that allowed you to realize you were gay? 

 Redding, Calif.,where I grew up, is quite homogeneous racially, and sexuality-wise, and politically. It was all kind of the same thing. I didn’t have a repressive or oppressive childhood by any means, it was just “gay” was never spoken. Once I got to college and these things started to be named and there were other gay people, I was sort of forced to think for myself. It was, Oh, well, this is a thing, and that is a thing, and this is why people are Democrats, and this is what liberal means, you know? It’s like, I’d known things before, but they’d never been named.

It feels to me as if after every Women’s World Cup since 1999, there’s been a groundswell of enthusiasm for the team and discussion about broader change for women’s sports, and then we wind up having a lot of the same discussions four years later. What needs to be done differently this time around to help sustain progress? We need to be a lot stronger. We are so much more organized now as a players’ association to fight the federation.

 But it’s difficult. You have basically 23 players in and out of the national team, so how do you sustain that pressure on the federation? It’s exhausting, but we just have to be tougher. We realize our worth now, and in the past we haven’t quite known what our market value is. If we get to the next round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations, which I think is in two years, and we’re not getting what we want, then we’re going to need to take more serious action than we’ve taken before and not settle for crap.

Have you settled for crap before? I think we’ve settled for less than we’re worth. We have a membership that we have to look after and would have to convince that striking or not playing or sitting out would be an option. You have players who are financially in a different position than Alex Morgan or me or Carli Lloyd. The other problem is that there’s basically 23 women in the country that make a living off soccer, and the thought of losing that is scary. So that’s the difficult part: trying to get everybody on board and forcing the federation to give us what we’re worth.

For people who may not have been following your team’s lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation, can you explain some of the changes you want to see in addition to gender pay equity? The lawsuit covers a lot. In a broad sense, it’s about equal investment and equal care of both the men’s and women’s sides. Whether it’s youth team programs, marketing, the branding of the team, how they sell tickets, what they spend advertising money on, what they pay each side, what they spend on support staff, what they spend on coaching, what’s the travel budget — it’s all of that. The compensation is sort of the last big part. Without having everything else equal, it’s hard to have a conversation about how much each team is worth, because each team’s value and potential isn’t being reached. At least ours is not. I don’t know exactly what they’re doing on the men’s side, but I suspect they deserve more pay as well. Both of us are cash cows for the federation, and they’re certainly making a ton of money. I’m not sure that we’re sharing in that.

Why has women’s professional soccer in the United States struggled to get to a healthier place? I’m at a loss for why there’s not more investment.

 The national team is wildly popular, making tons of money, growing exponentially, so do you have an idea other than sexism as to why people aren’t investing in women’s sports in a huge way right now? Probably 75 percent of the people going to Major League Soccer games — are they going because they’re hard-core soccer fans or because it’s a cool experience? The M.L.S. marketing is great, the branding is great and it’s a fun atmosphere to be a part of. I feel like women could have the exact same thing, but for some reason people aren’t investing in it.
The United States women’s soccer team in 2016. From left: Alex Morgan, Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn. U.S. Women's National Team Players Association

So is the answer just sexism? Unless I’m not thinking of something. I don’t think it’s a supercomplex issue. There’s plenty of money being invested all over the place in men’s sports, so until somebody tells me something that makes more sense, sexism is what we’re left with.

 

Do you think the National Women’s Soccer League’s teams could be better-run businesses? The problem with the ownership groups is that they’re run by millionaires. Which is great for your normal life, but you can’t be just a millionaire and run a team properly. So I don’t think they’re run great because they can’t be. They don’t have the resources. People always ask, “What do you think the league needs?” What do you mean what does it need? We need to get out in the community more? No. We need to tweet about it more? No. It drives me nuts when people ask, “What do we need?” A billion dollars! So we can do things properly. Not like idiots, which is what we end up doing.

At this point in your playing career, you’re closer to the end than the beginning. The end’s looking kind of nice right now.

Is it? After next summer, it’ll be a good time to look at things and see what opportunities are there. I still love playing. That’s never the issue. But I’m getting older. I’m certainly good enough, but we’ll see if I can keep healthy and keep running with the younger kids.

Have you thought about how you might maintain your influence when you’re done playing? That’s the million-dollar question. Hopefully the more-than-a-million-dollar question. What does it look like afterwards? How do I package myself into something that I want to do? Could I have a TV show? Maybe. Do I want to do that? I don’t know. Probably not.

Rapinoe holding the Women’s World Cup trophy in front of City Hall in New York City after a ticker-tape parade for the team on July 10. 

I bet that plenty of people who started paying attention to you over the last month or so may not know that not long ago there were questions about whether you had a future with the national team. What changed for you as a player and person to get from there to here? Quite a bit. Physically, as an athlete, you can do whatever until you’re in your late 20s. When you turn 30, you evolve your style of play and how you take care of yourself physically, or you just get old and retire. I feel incredibly lucky that I met my girlfriend, Sue,7Rapinoe's girlfriend is the veteran W.N.B.A. star Sue Bird.

 right around that time. It was 2016, after the Olympics. I’d made it back to the Olympics but probably shouldn’t have been on the roster. I wasn’t ready. I was just coming off this ACL injury, I was 31, I was clearly not what I was before. And in meeting Sue, she’d had knee injuries, and she changed her diet, her workouts, and she’s been able to have an incredibly long career. I intentionally did that change and started focusing a lot more on recovery and rest and taking care of myself, getting super fit. So meeting Sue was fortuitous for me, in many senses.

How did you and Sue wind up dating? At the Brazil Olympics, our team got out early, so most of the team went home, but I was like, [expletive] it, I’ve never been to Rio. So I was hanging out there and ended up going to a couple of basketball games and ended up going to the team’s afterparty and met Sue. It was kind of like, we both live in Seattle, we should hang out. Actually, my manager had tasked me with finding someone for Sue in Seattle. I said, “I’m on it.” Then a week later I was like, I have someone for Sue: Hand up emoji. We’ve been together ever since.

You and Sue are among a handful of star female athletes who are publicly out. There are zero men in that position in the four major American professional sports leagues. What might account for that, and what might cause things to open up? I think homophobia in sports accounts for that, but it’s also more than just homophobic culture. Life-changing, generational wealth is at stake for these guys. I think they’re scared to death to lose that. You’ve made it this far, no one in your family has ever done something like this, you and your family have the opportunity to live a completely different life for years and years, and you don’t want to risk that. But obviously there must be so many gay male athletes, and it’s probably an open secret with a lot of them. It seems crazy, though, that not one major star has ever been out.

What can you share with me about how you celebrated winning the World Cup? Well, I live my best life in celebration mode. My performance in the World Cup was good, but I was thinking all along, Just wait until I get to the celebrations. I love celebrating. We’d been cooped up for 50 days together. To be a team that is expected to win all the time — it’s exciting when you do, but it’s also this massive relief because it would be a huge letdown if you didn’t. Then to win in such spectacular fashion! You get to revel in it for days. You get to do whatever the [expletive] you want. That’s what I was telling the girls, especially the first days that we were back after winning: “This is the time that nobody cares what you do. You can ask for anything, you can do anything. Live it up. You’re never going to have this time again.” It’s so special and crazy and so much fun.

So how’d you live it up? Well, I mother-[expletive] the crowd at New York’s City Hall on television in front of the world. I gave a speech lit, as they say. I mean, spraying Champagne all over New Yorkers and drinking Champagne wherever we wanted. I don’t think I’ve asked for anything, though. I try not to be a diva. I do have a gift in mind for myself that I’ve been talking about for two years. It’s a Rolex. It’s very expensive. So we’ll see. I’m trying to think of anything else that I’ve asked for. Oh, I’ve been asking for private jets.

Is that true? Yeah. I’m not getting many. Turns out they’re very expensive. I want private jet travel so bad. I took one earlier this year. Alex Morgan and I had an event in Paris for Nike, and then we had a photoshoot in St. Lucia for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. The only way we were going to be able to make it all work was if we flew from Paris to St. Lucia on Nike’s plane. It was like the Ferrari of jets. That thing was so powerful. It’s ruined me forever.

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