This story appears in the June 3-10, 2019, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Megan Rapinoe demands your attention. The veteran forward buzzes around the left side of the U.S. attack, constantly threatening to create scoring chances. Wherever her platinum-blonde hair flashes on the pitch, she is finding the ball, sucking in defenders, bending the play to her will. In the 35th minute of a friendly against New Zealand in mid-May, Rapinoe makes one of those plays the U.S. women's national team will need in the World Cup: Spotting forward Tobin Heath near the far post, she whips a low cross through two Kiwis to her teammate, who taps it in for the goal, the first in a 5–0 win.
Heath leaps into Rapinoe's arms, one of which is encircled by the blue captain's armband, in front of a crowd of 35,761 at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. On the ESPN broadcast, former team captain Julie Foudy praises the vision and footwork necessary to facilitate the play. "All of that," she says, "is Megan Rapinoe." The game is merely a tune-up for what's to come this month in France. Still, Rapinoe does what she always has, through her 153 (and counting) national-team caps—she makes everything happen.
"Every team needs a Megan Rapinoe," says superstar forward Alex Morgan, "both on and off the field."
Rapinoe's freewheeling style of play led to the World Cup moments, eight years ago, that introduced America to her. There was that time against Colombia when she scored and then grabbed an on-field microphone to belt out "Born in the U.S.A.," and that perfect left-footed cross she launched 45 yards straight to Abby Wambach's head to save the quarterfinal against Brazil and secure her place in American soccer history.
Since then, Rapinoe, 33, has continued to star for the U.S. while using her voice for more than karaoke. She is just as enamored of the game as she was when she and her fraternal twin, Rachael, would travel two hours one way from their hometown in Redding, Calif., to club practice in Sacramento. But now in her third and likely final World Cup, the games have taken on a new meaning: The renown her play earns her will help spotlight her activism.
She has been one of the team's clearest voices in demanding gender equality, in March bringing suit against U.S. Soccer with 27 of her teammates, alleging gender discrimination. (The case is proceeding in federal court.) And nearly three years ago, she risked her spot on the national team to join Colin Kaepernick in peaceful protest of racial inequality by kneeling during the national anthem before games, which resulted in U.S. Soccer requiring players to stand.
Her boldness has brought some criticism from the broader public and skepticism from U.S. Soccer; not long ago, she wondered if her international career was fading out. But today she shares the team captaincy with Morgan and Carli Lloyd precisely because of her defiance of both age and convention. In challenging the established orders in her sport and her country, Rapinoe brought new challenges upon herself—and she raised not only her voice but her game.
It was on the flight back from Germany after the 2011 World Cup that Rapinoe, 26 years old and newly famous, decided she would tell the world she was gay. Her sexuality wasn't a secret; she had been out to family and friends since her days as an All-American at Portland. She had also been vocal on social media in support of gay rights. Her teammate and close friend Lori Lindsey suggested bringing her own story to the cause. Lindsey knew Rapinoe had the star power, charisma and conviction for her words to travel.
The next summer, before the 2012 Olympics, Out published an interview with Rapinoe in which she became the first prominent U.S. women's soccer player to say publicly that she is gay. That was the beginning of her activism. A few months later, Lindsey, too, came out in an online magazine for LGBTQ+ women.
Rapinoe leans on a strong support system that includes Rachael, who played with her on the 2005 NCAA national championship team, and her parents, Jim and Denise, who had been responsible for driving the twins to those club soccer practices. The youngest of six kids, Megan and Rachael always had a ball with them, so Denise enrolled them in soccer at age 5—but she also took them to volunteer around their community in rural Northern California, at their church, homeless shelters and food banks.
When Rapinoe came out publicly, she was thinking of kids like the one she had been, quiet and not entirely comfortable in her own skin until she discovered her sexuality. "As she developed more confidence and security in who she was, slowly her voice became bigger," Rachael says.
This spring, Rapinoe became the first openly gay woman to pose for SI Swimsuit, challenging the issue's hetero norms; this month, Rapinoe is launching a fashion-related business with Heath, Christen Press and Meghan Klingenberg that she says has little to do with sports.
She also now leans on her partner, WNBA star and four-time Olympic champion Sue Bird, whom she began dating in 2016, one of the most turbulent periods in Rapinoe's life. Rapinoe copied the diet, training and sleep regimen that helped Bird extend her playing career and also found her "sounding board."
After Rapinoe came out publicly, she emerged as a regular starter and one of the best players in the world during the U.S.'s 2012 gold medal run, scoring two goals in the 4–3 dramatic semifinal win over Canada. Since then, she has been named a World Cup All-Star (2015) and has twice been short-listed for FIFA Women's Player of the Year ('15, '18).
Lindsey, an alternate for those London Games, noticed a new freedom to Rapinoe's play from the previous year in Germany—something she has continued to see since. "The more she speaks out, she is bringing more to her game," Lindsey says. "There's a power to it that goes beyond the field. When what you are doing goes beyond soccer, the playing aspect doesn't feel as heavy."
In September 2016, both Rapinoe and the women's national team were at crucial points. She was then nine months removed from her third ACL tear since '06, suffered during the '15 World Cup victory tour, and one month removed from the disappointing Rio Games. (The U.S. lost on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals to Sweden, missing the final for the first time since women's soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996. Because of her right knee injury, Rapinoe had played only 27 minutes.) "There were a lot of things happening all at that same time," Rapinoe says. "It was kind of like this defining moment in my life. Like, what are you going to be?"
Rapinoe's team, Seattle Reign FC, was in Chicago one Sunday to play the Red Stars. The decision she made that night, to kneel during the national anthem, was meant as a small gesture of solidarity. She thought simply that Kaepernick's peaceful protest against racial injustice, which had begun two weeks earlier, was worth joining; as an advocate herself for LGBTQ+ rights, Rapinoe could relate to his fight. "He was out there, kind of on his own," she says.
On her team, and in women's soccer, so was she. The Reign's next game was near Washington; Lori Lindsey was living in D.C. and decided to attend. As she walked up to the Maryland SoccerPlex several minutes before kickoff, Lindsey couldn't figure out why she was hearing the national anthem. Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch had worked to head off Rapinoe's demonstration by ordering that it be played while both teams were still in their locker rooms, "rather than subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent," the team said in a statement.
"F---ing unbelievable," Rapinoe told reporters after the game.
Later that month the USWNT played two friendlies, against Thailand and the Netherlands. Rapinoe continued to kneel. U.S. Soccer issued a statement during the first of those matches saying that it expected players and coaches to stand for the anthem "as part of the privilege to represent your country."
Morgan says, "I never saw her as not being one of the core players of this team." As for how the federation and the fans were treating Rapinoe? "I don't feel like she was always supported."
In the months that followed, Rapinoe believed she was "on the outs" with the national team. She was not called up for two October friendlies against Switzerland; in November, she did not dress for two matches against Romania. When the roster for the SheBelieves Cup was announced in the spring of 2017, Rapinoe was again left off.
"I could have faded out pretty easily. My back really was against the wall, in a lot of different ways," Rapinoe says. One of those ways was that Rapinoe was still working her way back to her pre-injury level of play. That was the reason USWNT coach Jill Ellis gave to ESPN then for Rapinoe's absence. But after U.S. Soccer adopted a policy in February that all players "shall stand respectfully" during the playing of the anthem, she was called up for the next matches.
"U.S. Soccer can say what they want, but I never really saw the field again until the new rule was made that you are not allowed to kneel," Rapinoe says. "Sometimes the obvious thing is the obvious thing. No one ever said that, of course, and there were other factors as well; I don't want to say that was everything. That puts Jill in an awkward position for me to say that. But I didn't ever play until the rule was made. If that's an odd coincidence, then I guess that is what it is." (A U.S. Soccer spokesperson declined to comment.)
Those close to Rapinoe noticed the criticism had taken a toll. "She has always been really loved," Lindsey says, "and I think for the first time she really got a sense of, there are hate messages; they are scary and real." Rapinoe describes that time as "personally, very challenging for me." She lost weight. The Rapinoe SC business she started with Rachael took a substantial revenue hit from decreased attendance at their training clinics and a decline in apparel sales. Their customer inquiry inbox was flooded with hate mail; a local club team they were partnering with for a soccer clinic near D.C. in October 2016 suggested a venue change and extra security to protect against protestors. (None showed up.) "The hate that came out of it was really sad," Rachael says, "and I think that's why Megan still feels heavy about the situation."
These days, the sight of Rapinoe standing stoically with her hands clasped behind her back during the anthem still angers some fans. But she isn't changing her ways, not now, not after her lonely protest clarified her purpose. "I was on my own," Rapinoe says. "That opened up this new confidence in me of like, F--- it, I know that in my heart, my intentions are good, and whether society at large is supporting me, it's not something I can guide my decisions on."
In the 30-plus years that the U.S. women have played internationally, they have enjoyed more competitive success than their male counterparts—three World Cup titles and four Olympic golds, compared with zero of each. Nevertheless, the women contend, gender-based discrimination has affected their paychecks and playing, training and travel accommodations. U.S. Soccer has denied the claims, countering that the men's and women's teams are separate organizations with different pay structures, with the women paid guaranteed salaries and benefits while the men are compensated when they report for national team duty.
The five players who filed a wage-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in March 2016 got notice of their right to sue earlier this year, allowing them to bring their fight to federal court. On March 8 of this year, International Women's Day, 28 players brought a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. Rapinoe is the second named plaintiff. Morgan is first. "I have learned to use my platform for greater things than soccer," Morgan says, "and that's got a lot to do with Pinoe."
The suit is about more than top players' wages, she argues. It's about equal investment in women's programs at all levels. "The interest for women's sports is there. I see it every day," Rapinoe says. "Look at what the national team has done with not as much funding and investment from the federation."
Naturally, the national team has been asked if the lawsuit will affect its World Cup play. Rapinoe wants the lawsuit to remain a topic during the tournament; she wants the federation to have to explain why she earns less than men do.
"I will be, I am sure, frustrated for the rest of my life with these issues, as many other marginalized people are," she says. "But we are making progress, and we are seeing that groundswell, and that shift in culture and the narrative. It is extremely motivating and energizing to feel as if you are part of change. To be a part of that greater movement within this country, whether it is Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, Time's Up, the women's movement—that's an incredible feeling."
Rapinoe has already decided how she would respond to an invitation to visit the White House if the U.S. successfully defends its World Cup title: "Absolutely not." She would be open to going to Washington and meeting with members of government, but not President Trump.
"I am not going to fake it, hobnob with the president, who is clearly against so many of the things that I am [for] and so many of the things that I actually am," Rapinoe says. "I have no interest in extending our platform to him."
Back in St. Louis, as Rapinoe warms up, watching from the stands is a 48-year-old woman wearing a No. 15 jersey. Ramona Midgett and her husband, David, got hooked on women's soccer during the 2011 World Cup—the tournament that launched both Rapinoe the player and Rapinoe the activist. Midgett cheers the way her favorite player makes things happen, on and off the field. "I love how outspoken she is, and how she stands up for everyone's rights," she says. "She represents what America should be."