In most circumstances, I personally don’t love it when athletes use their celebrity to tout political or social issues.
I was initially quite unimpressed – maybe even a bit annoyed – with U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) co-captain Megan Rapinoe’s antics ahead of playing the Netherlands and I took a firm stance against her in my Forbes column. Clearly, I hit a nerve as the piece received a record number of views for me, second only to a snarky piece I did on Piers Morgan a few years back. I still stand by that Piers piece.
I was critical of Meghan in large part because her very important message was self-obfuscated by her distracting behaviour and fiery commentary off the field. A combination of misguided albeit well-intentioned immaturity left un-tempered by good communications coaching.
To refresh your memory, Rapinoe drew heavy fire from Trump for not putting her hand on heart, choosing to stay silent and for taking a knee during the national anthem. The breakthrough moment came when she was recorded saying she would not attend the White House should the team win. She’s always been outspoken and is courageously leading the lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay and care for both men’s and women’s soccer. In fact, the Federation recently hired a lobbying firm to try and thwart her efforts.
This type of public stance has raised a lot of questions around professional athletes and whether they should have a political viewpoint at all. But after seeing how Rapinoe has continued the conversation and stood her ground, constructively and maturely, it’s made me re-consider my stance.
I’m a purist in that I think an athlete should “play for keeps” when it comes to speaking out on issues. What does it mean to play for keeps you ask? To me, it means:
Being authentic and selfless. The issue actually relates to an athlete’s personal or professional life and most importantly, impacts others.
Being “all in.” The athlete commits time and money towards the cause, not just their celebrity or rhetoric.
Not being vague. The athlete articulates a very specific goal and issues a clear call to action for others to join them.
Playing the long game. Not a deal breaker, but it’s nice when athletes pick a few core platforms and stick to campaigning around these over the long-term and avoid short-term issues appropriation.
It’s why I applaud Megan Rapinoe in how she conducted herself after the USWNT won the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Not because Rapinoe was awarded the tournament’s Golden Boot as its top goal-scorer and the Golden Ball as its best player, but because she’s kept a clear and consistent message post-game.
She’s not the first athlete or sports team to skip the White House and she won’t be last. The difference comes in the consistency and purpose of Rapinoe’s message. In any good debate, argument, or conversation, you need to have a point that you’re willing to stick too, that’s clear, concise and easy to understand.
For many, the World Cup victory would have been enough. Not for Meghan. She’s in it to win it and win it all. She wants justice for the players, women and men alike. She’s been on air with Anderson Cooper on CNN and in an interview with The New York Time’s reporter David Marches she said her message was “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 having hard conversations is the only way we can start to move forward.”
In the same way that companies are more involved now more than ever in social issues, we shouldn’t expect professional athletes to be one-dimensional role models either.
In case you’re wondering, Rapinoe has still not received an invite from the Trump administration. But she and the USWNT are officially headed to Congress after accepting an invitation from senate minority leader Chuck Schumer.
I will always root for team USA and now I’ll also root for professional athletes who choose to lean into important social issues, provided they play the long game, like Meghan.