It started with a simple answer to a simple question.
“Are you excited to go to the White House?” a reporter for the soccer magazine Eight by Eight asked US women’s national soccer team co-captain Megan Rapinoe in June. It was a reference to what might happen if she helped lead her team to a World Cup victory.
“I’m not going to the fucking White House,” Rapinoe replied.
President Trump responded on Twitter, saying “Megan should WIN before she TALKS.” Rapinoe stood by her sentiments, and on Tuesday, her girlfriend, WNBA point guard Sue Bird, added her support in a viral essay titled “So the President F*cking Hates My Girlfriend.”
“Like, dude,” Bird asked of Trump — “there’s nothing better demanding your attention??”
Rapinoe sat out Thursday’s game due to a minor injury, but assuming she plays in Sunday’s final, her profile is likely only to grow — the team has already been invited to the House and the Senate.
Of course, this was only the latest of the president’s public feuds with athletes. A lot of what’s happened with Rapinoe has echoes of Trump’s reactions to Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback whose protests against police brutality have raised the ire of the president and his base. Rapinoe, who in 2016 took a knee during the national anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick, now occupies a somewhat similar role in the politics of sports in America.
Though the particulars of their identities — she is a white, gay woman, he a black man — are different, both are using their celebrity to speak out on behalf of marginalized groups. The president, for his part, is using their statements to play to his base.
Trump “has demonstrated a keen ability to tap into some of the fears and insecurities” of working-class white men, who make up a big part of the fan base of many popular sports, said Lori L. Martin, a professor of sociology and African and African American Studies at Louisiana State University who has written about Kaepernick. “When he comes after someone like Megan Rapinoe or Colin Kaepernick, in many ways, some of those very same folks see him as articulating what they already feel.”
Rapinoe has a long history of public protest
Megan Rapinoe isn’t new to the national stage. She was a member of the gold medal-winning US women’s soccer team at the 2012 Olympics, as well as the US team that won the World Cup in 2015. She also plays professional soccer for the Seattle Reign.
In 2016, about a month after Kaepernick began his anthem protest, Rapinoe took a knee during the anthem before a Reign game. Her action was “a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now,” she told American Soccer Now.
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she added. “It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”
The US Soccer Federation has since required players to stand for the national anthem, but Rapinoe stands without singing or placing her hand on her heart, as Vox’s Gabriela Resto-Montero writes.
Rapinoe has also been a vocal advocate of equal pay for women’s soccer players, who have sued the United States Soccer Federation for pay discrimination. And she has spoken with joy and humor about her sexuality — “Go gays!” she said after the US team’s win against France last week. “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team, it’s pretty much never been done before ever. Science, right there.”
The back-and-forth with Trump started in late June, with a video interview with Eight by Eight. After saying she wouldn’t be visiting the White House, Rapinoe added, “We’re not gonna be invited.” Winning sports teams often visit the White House, and the women’s national team were guests of President Obama there after their 2015 World Cup victory.
Trump took issue with Rapinoe’s comments, and said she should “finish the job” before she talks. He also said she “should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team.”
....invited Megan or the team, but I am now inviting the TEAM, win or lose. Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team. Be proud of the Flag that you wear. The USA is doing GREAT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2019
At a press conference the following day, Rapinoe said she stood by her comments “with exception of the expletive. My mom would be very upset about that.”
Bird, Rapinoe’s girlfriend, described in her essay the fallout from Trump’s tweets:
[N]ow suddenly you’ve got all these MAGA peeps getting hostile in your mentions. And you’ve got all these crazy blogs writing terrible things about this person you care so much about. And now they’re doing takedowns of Megan on Fox News, and who knows whatever else. It’s like an out-of-body experience, really — that’s how I’d describe it.
But, she wrote, Rapinoe was unfazed by the reaction: “You just cannot shake that girl. She’s going to do her thing, at her own damn speed, to her own damn rhythm, and she’s going to apologize to exactly NO ONE for it.”
A few days after Trump’s tweets, Rapinoe helped lead her team to a quarter-final victory against France. On Thursday, she was out of commission with a slight hamstring industry, but her team went on to beat England. She has said she expects to play in Sunday’s final game.
Trump’s reaction to Rapinoe shows how he drums up support among his base
The trajectory of Trump’s feud with Rapinoe has a lot in common with his reactions to Kaepernick. As Vox’s P.R. Lockhart explains, Trump has criticized Kaepernick’s protests since he was on the campaign trail. Kaepernick has been clear that he is protesting racism and police brutality, not the national anthem itself. But as Lockhart notes, Trump has reframed the protests as unpatriotic. In August 2016, for example, he said that maybe Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”
In 2017, when Kaepernick wasn’t picked up by any NFL teams after opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, Trump took credit, saying, “It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump.” (Kaepernick filed a collusion lawsuit against the NFL, which was settled earlier this year.)
As Lockhart notes, Trump used his criticism of Kaepernick to bolster a larger narrative of a culture war, casting Kaepernick and other protesting athletes, many of them people of color, as enemies of America. In so doing, he drummed up support among his base, especially those who identify with his xenophobic statements about immigrants and other groups. With Rapinoe, he’s doing much the same thing.
Going after athletes like Rapinoe and Kaepernick is a way for Trump to speak directly to the fears of a subset of white American men, said Martin, the sociologist. He’s able to “further consolidate his support while at the same time further alienating and marginalizing another segment of the US population,” she said.
In the case of Kaepernick, the effects showed up in polling. Trump voters’ opinions of the NFL in general took a nosedive. Black players in general lost popularity with non-college-educated white Americans, with those who had participated in protests losing more ground.
It’s too soon for much data on the effects of Trump’s Rapinoe comments, but conservatives in media have praised him. Fox Business host Stu Varney, for instance, said that Rapinoe’s comments were “beneath contempt” and suggested, “why don’t we just fire her as the co-captain?”
Of course, Rapinoe is a white woman, and responses to her are going to be different than responses to Kaepernick — Trump’s criticisms of her have so far been more muted than his comments about the quarterback. He hasn’t suggested that she leave the country.
But, Martin points out, both have been portrayed as unpatriotic and anti-American. “That really points to just how political sports are,” she added, “and how various groups will unite under the flag and under the umbrella of patriotism despite their differences” when they feel that their identities are somehow under attack.
Meanwhile, she said, “we could say that Megan as well as Colin Kaepernick perhaps represent the best of American patriotism: trying to compel America to see itself in a way that perhaps makes many people uncomfortable.”