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Soccer star Megan Rapinoe says patriotism means demanding better of ourselves

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. The Women's World Cup began this week, and it will be the final World Cup for one of women's soccer's most iconic stars - Megan Rapinoe. She announced recently that she'll retire at the end of this season.

Rapinoe is an icon for being a champion and an activist. In her 17 years with the U.S. Women's National Soccer team, most recently as co-captain, she helped the team win two Women's World Cups in 2015 and 2019 and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. For a while, she was the only openly gay player on the U.S. Women's National Soccer team, which put her in the spotlight as an LGBTQ activist. She fought for equal pay in women's soccer, and she was part of a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. In 2016, a week after Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, Rapinoe also took a knee in support and faced the consequences.

Terry Gross spoke with Megan Rapinoe in 2020, and she had just written a memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: When you started playing soccer, when you were around 6, there wasn't, like, a girls' team for you to be part of. So you and your twin sister became members of the boys' team. How did it feel for you as a girl to be on the boys' team? Because, you know, another thing you say in your book is that you don't think you ever dominated a team the way you dominated that boys' team when you were a child.

MEGAN RAPINOE: (Laughter).

GROSS: And, you know, I'm also wondering, like, did the boys really appreciate that? Like, she's really great, and she's on our team? Or did they think it was weird or maybe even uncomfortable that a girl was, like, beating them? You know, you were on the same team, but you were better than they were.

RAPINOE: You know, I don't think I ever really, really thought about it probably until, you know, fifth or sixth grade. I think that's when gender lines are drawn more clearly. Because, you know, all growing up, we played with each other. We played with boys. It was - you know, during recess, during, you know, intramural sports or whatever it may be, sort of our town sports. It was just kind of, like, what it was.

And I think from a very early age, my sister Rachel and I were always the best. Like, there was no question. So it wasn't like, you know, we were coming up against these boys and kind of holding our own or kind of not. We were kind of kicking everyone's butt. So I don't think the boys even looked at us like, oh, these are girls, and we're not supposed to lose to girls. It's kind of like, well, yeah, those are the twins, and, like, they're better than everyone.

It was interesting, actually. I think that we were maybe 11 or 12. We played on a boys' team that traveled to Sacramento. So we're from a pretty small town in Northern California called Redding. It's about 2 1/2 hours' drive from Sacramento to a town that - you know, I think because they have so many kids and the sports programs were a lot better, the soccer programs were a lot better, they were split up by boys and girls, I'm sure, a lot earlier. But ours was kind of like, well, let's just get the best, you know, 20 kids that we can find, and we'll just work with that.

But the parents on the other team and even the boys on the other team were really kind of taken aback by it. You know, comments coming from the parents on the sidelines - oh, don't let that girl beat you. Or the boys, you could just tell, on the other team were just uncomfortable with the fact that they were being beaten or being bettered by a girl. But that was kind of the first time I sort of realized like, oh, these parents are not used to this. And clearly this is something that they should look a little deeper into because they seem quite upset.

GROSS: You write that you knew you were never going to be the fastest player or the strongest player, so you had to develop a style rooted in something other than beating people through physical force. Do you think that thinking that you wouldn't be, like, the strongest or the fastest helped you develop your footwork?

RAPINOE: Oh, yeah, definitely. I think it helped me develop not just my footwork, but my awareness in the game. Some people can outrun everyone. Some people are better understanding spatial awareness. I think I was good at that. I think I was understanding, you know, how I could make space for myself in a sort of a strategic way.

I mean, I think I'm athletic enough, obviously, to be able to run fast and do things. But I think I just developed other parts of my game that - no matter how fast you are or how strong you are, you can still be really successful if you're creative with the game, if you have good vision, if you know how to get open, if you know how to pull defenses apart, if you can anticipate all of those kinds of things.

GROSS: So I want to ask you about one of your most spectacular plays, which a lot of us have seen either when it happened or on YouTube because the video went viral. It was in 2011. You kick the ball across the field, a big, amazing cross. And then Abby Wambach headed it in to the goal. So I want you to describe it from your perspective.

RAPINOE: We're in Dresden, Germany. It's 2011. This is my first World Cup. The game is going very strange from the outset. The crowd actually was quite neutral. I think whenever we travel, we generally get a pretty pro-American crowd. There's been very few times where we haven't had that.

But the game was weird. We had gotten a red card in, like, the 60th minute, maybe. So one of our players was ejected. I think we were losing at the time, maybe 2 to 1. And it was - you just felt a weird sort of energy in the crowd. I think around the time that our player got ejected, Brazil - they started, you know, wasting time and using, you know, different tactics. But I think they were just trying to waste time and get to the end of the game.

So we end up tying it up. We end up going into overtime. They score in overtime. And you can kind of feel the crowd turn on them as they start to have more antics and try to waste more time and this and that. So there was some whistling happening.

And we get down to the very final minutes of the game. I mean, we're already past the time. I think it was in the 122nd minute. And I'm really just thinking to myself, like, we're going to lose. Like, oh, my God. Like, we're going to lose. The ball - you know, I'm looking at the clock. It's down in our end. We've just, you know, taken the ball from the Brazilians. And then I'm just like, we're going to be, you know, the U.S. team that goes out the earliest that we've ever had, and it's just, you know, tragic.

We start to dribble up the field. It comes across to the middle. Carli Lloyd gets the ball. And I'm just thinking, like - it seemed like she held onto the ball and dribbled the ball for five hours, but it was probably three seconds. It finally comes over to me. And in all of its sense, it was just a Hail Mary. I didn't see Abby, but I knew she better be there. I was like, I don't know where else you would be, but you better be somewhere around where I'm trying to kick it.

And I just heaved it. I just kicked it literally as hard as I could. And you have this insane sort of last-second goal, which very rarely happens in soccer. I mean, essentially that - the game was over. We went into - you know, we tied it up, went into overtime and won in penalties. But that was sort of the deciding moment. And it was just an exceptional moment of emotion, I think, for everybody to feel at the same time, from the players on the field to the crowd to the people back home. It was just insane.

GROSS: You were one of the first women on the U.S. national women's soccer team to come out, although you say there were plenty of other women who were gay but not out. You say you were one of the only gay players at the time, which is hilarious considering how many gay people were really on the team. So...

RAPINOE: Yes.

GROSS: ...What made you decide, like, you were going to publicly come out?

RAPINOE: You know, I honestly felt like - I mean, even going back to when I first sort of discovered I was gay myself, which happened very shortly after I got to college, I never struggled with that. I was actually thrilled. I thought, OK, this is awesome. I felt like my whole life sort of, like, clicked into place, and it just gave me this whole new sense of myself and just this confidence, I think, kind of bloomed and exploded in me. And it was during - I mean, I think at the time, maybe just before that Prop 8 had been on the ballot in California - I'm from California - you know, generally, I think these cases were coming before the Supreme Court, and it just be - kind of came, like, why am I not out? I didn't really have a lot of, you know, interaction with media where I had to hide it or, you know, nobody was asking. That's not really an appropriate question to ask someone.

But it just became one of those things where I did start to notice myself saying some things and not others. And I just was like, what am I doing? Like, why am I even doing that? And why am I not out, knowing that it could probably have a really positive impact? And so I just kind of made the decision. It was actually on the plane ride home from that 2011 World Cup. I was sitting next to my friend Lori (ph), who's also out and played on the team for a long time. It was just - yeah, it just kind of became, like, why am I not out? This is not feeling right. And so I took, I think, a couple of months to sort of figure out exactly what I wanted to do and then came out before the London Olympics in 2012.

GROSS: And what changed afterwards?

RAPINOE: Publicly, I think a lot changed. I still, to this day, have, you know, people coming up to me or writing to me or whatever it may be, you know, thanking me or saying, you know, I'm the reason they felt OK with themselves or I'm the reason their family was OK or, you know, parents coming up to me who, you know, very clearly have little, budding gay children. And even if it's an unspoken thing, it's - they see themselves in me. They see a future for their children that isn't, you know, just all about the stereotype that you hear, which is how hard life is to be gay. And not to say that life isn't difficult being gay. For a lot of people, it really is. But it's not all bad. It's not all struggle. Whenever I go into a room, like, we don't have to talk about the fact that I'm gay - or an interview or whatever doesn't have to be all about that, but I'm very out and proud and will show that and will live a very out and open life. And I think that that's vital for people to see.

MOSLEY: Soccer player and activist Megan Rapinoe speaking to Terry Gross in 2020. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AWREEOH SONG, "CAN'T BRING ME DOWN")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2020 interview with soccer star and activist Megan Rapinoe. She recently announced that she'll retire at the end of the season after 17 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So, you know, we've talked about your work as an LGBTQ activist. You took a knee in 2016, a week after Colin Kaepernick did. You were 31. You were a veteran of two World Cups and two Olympic Games. And it sounds from your memoir like it was a pretty spontaneous move on your part. Tell us what went through your mind when you did it.

RAPINOE: What I was thinking at the time - so we've gone through, you know, the summer of 2014. We've gone through the Black Lives Matter protests. You know, going through 2015, that's all still happening. 2016 summer was just so tragic - you know, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and, you know, the Dallas police officers shot. I think there was more police officers shot in Louisiana, as well. And just, you know, kind of coming to a head. The WNBA players had staged protests during their season, actually, you know, refusing to talk about anything, but - and so you kind of get to this moment in Colin Kaepernick, where, you know, the first moment that I saw him speak on "SportsCenter" or whatever it was, it was like - it just was very simple to me. Like, this is clearly happening throughout the country.

We've gone through Trayvon Martin. We've gone through Michael Brown. We've gone through, you know, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile and all of these - Sandra Bland and all of these horrible tragedies. And, I mean, of course we're at this moment, and of course what he's saying is true. And it just really struck me. And he sort of put an action to the words that he was saying and the words that I had been reading for so long and the words, you know, of all of these Black Lives Matter protests. And it just was like, OK, this is an action that I can do, that I can help with.

GROSS: So I want to read something that you reprint in your memoir. And this is what U.S. Soccer said in an official statement. And you say it might as well have been headed dear Megan. So the statement was (reading) representing your country is a privilege and honor for any player or coach that is associated with U.S. Soccer's national team. In front of national and often global audiences, the playing of our national anthem is an opportunity for our men's and women's national team players and coaches to reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in the country. As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.

What was your reaction when you read that statement?

RAPINOE: I couldn't believe it. I think I was truly sort of dumbstruck. It really upset me. The nerve and the audacity to say what they did in that statement - it is an honor and a privilege that we all have in this country? I don't think so. I don't think we do all have that in this country. So it missed the entire point, clearly. And it was just cruel in a way. It was gaslighting, and it was manipulative, and it was cruel. But it also was very - I thought, very intentionally meant to silence me.

GROSS: What are some of the repercussions you faced professionally?

RAPINOE: They're sort of gray repercussions, I'll say. You know, in - like, in terms of sponsorships, I didn't lose any sponsorships, which I think is great. Obviously, Nike's a big sponsor of mine. They have been very supportive. But I certainly didn't get any new sponsorships. And I certainly didn't get any new opportunities sort of in the short term. You know, from U.S. Soccer's perspective, from playing, I really didn't play again until the spring, I think, or even later into the next year.

GROSS: And did you regret kneeling because of that?

RAPINOE: No. No, no. Definitely not. I mean, I think, honestly, the only thing that I regret, maybe, was, when I came back, that I didn't keep kneeling. That's something that I feel like I still struggle with. You know, I didn't want to lose my job. You know, I didn't want to not have a platform to talk on. I didn't want to not, you know, keep playing for the national team.

GROSS: U.S. Soccer did eventually lift the ban. When did they lift it?

RAPINOE: As, you know, the tragic murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, as the protests subsequently, you know, swept the nation, I think that they realized that, that policy not only is now - is wrong now, but it always was. And it was the wrong policy, and they came out with a pretty strongly worded statement and rescinded it.

GROSS: So you're very stylish in your streetwear and in red carpet looks. And I forget which trophy that you won, but you wore - it was like a gown with a plunge neckline - very stylish and elegant and very feminine. And you're somebody who used to always dress like a boy (laughter) when you were young. So when - oh, and I should mention, like, during one big game, you dyed your hair platinum, during another, you dyed it pink. So when did that happen, that you became conscious of style?

RAPINOE: You know, I think I've always been conscious of style. I think I'm much more stylish now than I used to be. But I think I've always been - you know, I've always, like, had jewelry or tied little things on my wrist or worn rings or necklaces or whatever. I think that comes from my mom. She's always like - you know, does things for herself. That's, like, her form of self-expression and self-care in a way. And I also believe that everybody should live in their full individuality. It's interesting because we live in a society that values the sort of individual over the greater good, but we require that individual to fit in this tiny box of what we deem as a society acceptable. And, like, nobody really fits into that, right?

And so I think with fashion, and whether that be a red carpet or just what I'm wearing to the grocery store, it's like a way that I express myself in that I speak to myself for myself. It's like, I don't really get dressed for anyone else. Like, sometimes I feel more masculine. Sometimes I feel more feminine. Sometimes I like to wear whatever. But it's all just, like, to sort of feed my own individuality and creativity. And it, like, just makes me feel good.

GROSS: Megan Rapinoe, thank you so much for talking with us.

RAPINOE: Thank you so much for having me on.

MOSLEY: Soccer champion and activist Megan Rapinoe spoke to Terry Gross in 2020. The Women's World Cup began yesterday, and Rapinoe announced it will be her last. She is retiring at the end of the season. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new films "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER SONG, "I'LL WALK AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.