Know your audience.
Megan Rapinoe has always had an uncanny ability to pick the right tone and the right words when she speaks in public, and she did it again on Monday in Milan as she received the FIFA award for the women’s world player of the year.
On this occasion, Rapinoe realized that the audience she had before her at La Scala included many of the most famous athletes in the world, the majority of whom had never heard her speak in person before. It’s really quite something, Rapinoe’s poise. She can have it when she’s downing glasses of Champagne, dropping F-bombs and energizing hundreds of thousands at a New York City ticker-tape parade.
Or she can have it while wearing a gorgeous black-velour designer dress and speaking about deadly serious topics from the stage at the world’s most famous opera house.
Rapinoe didn’t have much time to give her address on Monday, but she made the most of it, including tackling the topic of racism in soccer on a stage in Italy, which has seen several such high-profile incidents recently.
“Some of the stories that have inspired me the most this year,” Rapinoe said, “[are] Raheem Sterling and [Kalidou] Koulibaly, their incredible performances on the field but the way they have taken on the disgusting racism that they have to face this year but probably for their whole lives.
“The young Iranian woman who eventually set herself on fire because she wasn't able to go to the game," she continued. "The one out MLS player [Collin] Martin and the countless other female out LGBTQ players who fight so hard every day to a) just play the sport they love but b) to fight the rampant homophobia that we have.
“Those are all the stories that inspire me so much, but they also admittedly make me a little bit sad and a little bit disappointed. I feel like if we really want to have meaningful change, what I think is most inspiring would be if everybody other than Raheem Sterling and Koulibaly, if they were as outraged about racism as they were … If everybody was as outraged about homophobia as the LGBTQ players … if everybody was as outraged about equal pay or the lack thereof of the lack of investment in the women’s game other than just women, that would be the most inspiring thing to me.”
Rapinoe, more than nearly any other athlete, has understood what former French World Cup winner Lilian Thuram has said about racism in soccer: The problem is not for the targets of that racism—the black players—to fix. When Inter’s Romelu Lukaku is subjected to racist chants from Cagliari fans, the media stories shouldn’t have photographs and quotes of Lukaku. They should be of high-profile white players calling it out, using their platforms. They should be of white Italian soccer officials taking real action against racism—which, obviously, is not what they have done (they have actually done the opposite).
“I feel like that’s my ask of everybody,” Rapinoe said on Monday. “We have such an incredible opportunity being professional football players. We have so much success, financial and otherwise. We have incredible platforms. I ask everyone here—because I think everyone in this room probably has that crown that they're bearing—to lend your platform to other people. Lift other people up. Share your success. We have a unique opportunity in football different to any other sport in the world: To use this beautiful game to actually change the world for better. So that's my charge to everyone. I hope you take that to heart and just do something. Do anything. We have incredible power in this room.”
Rapinoe, more than any other athlete in 2019, has taken the greatest strides to unlock that power. She did it again in Milan.