Megan Rapinoe is so much more than the Sportsperson of the Year
- On Monday night, Sports Illustrated recognized Megan Rapinoe with the 65th edition of what is, by all accounts, its most prestigious honor: the Sportsperson of the Year award.
- The shiny silver cup was just the latest of many 2019 accolades for the pink-haired footballer, who feuded with President Donald Trump and fearlessly spoke out against injustice en route to a World Cup win, Golden Ball and Golden Boot accolades, and a Ballon d'Or.
- While there's little doubt that the controversial US Women's National Team star was the natural choice to win Sportsperson of the Year, the magnitude and seemingly enduring nature of her impact on the women's sports landscape and beyond renders the award comparatively trivial.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more.
On Monday night, Sports Illustrated recognized Megan Rapinoe with the 65th edition of what is, by all accounts, its most prestigious honor: the Sportsperson of the Year award.
There's little doubt that the controversial US Women's National Team star was the natural choice to win the award, which they bestow upon "the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement." But given the scope of her societal impact, dubbing her Sportsperson of the Year felt like a massive understatement.
During Rapinoe's meteoric rise, she drew the ire of President Donald Trump after she was caught on video telling a journalist that she was not "going to the f------ White House" if the USWNT won the 2019 World Cup in France. Trump responded by suggesting that Rapinoe should "win before she talks," and the prolific scorer answered by winning the Golden Ball and Golden Boot for her outstanding efforts in securing the USWNT's fourth World Cup victory. And earlier this month, the international soccer community recognized the USWNT captain as the world's best female player of the year by awarding her with the most-coveted honor in the game - the Ballon d'Or.
Even though her summer performance - and feud with the president - attracted the world's attention to an unprecedented degree, Rapinoe has a long history of speaking out against homophobia, racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice. Notably, she was one of the first white athletes to kneel during pregame renditions of the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. She came out as gay four years before same-sex marriage was legalized across the United States in a considerably risky move for an athlete who relies on lucrative endorsement deals to make a sustainable living. Later, she encouraged USWNT teammates Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris - who will marry this month - to have the courage to do the same.
"Megan said something," Krieger told Sports Illustrated's Jenny Vrentas, "that I will never forget: that there are young kids who are too scared to be themselves, and if we keep hiding, it doesn't make it normal to be in a lesbian relationship."
Perhaps it was that increased vulnerability Rapinoe and her teammates experienced in coming out that forced them to consider the implications of gender on their financial situation. While many high-profile athletes look for endorsement opportunities to supplement their incomes, the vast majority of female athletes in the United States literally cannot make ends meet based on their salaries alone. Today, the maximum salary for a player in the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) - the world's most elite women's soccer league in which Rapinoe, Krieger, and Harris all play - is $50,000. And last year, the average WNBA salary was $116,000 - nearly half a million dollars less than the minimum for an NBA player.
Rapinoe and her teammates on the USWNT recognized that this disparity extended to their compensation relative to the US Men's National Team. Citing the US Soccer Federation's 2015 financial statement, ESPN reported that "despite the women's team generating nearly $20 million more revenue last year than the U.S. men's team, the women are paid about a quarter of what the men earn." Shortly after the team's 2016 World Cup victory, Rapinoe joined Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Becky Sauerbrunn in filing a complaint against the US Soccer Federation through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The five women's efforts led to 28 members of the USWNT filing a lawsuit against US Soccer mere months before the 2019 World Cup. In the suit, the team accused the federation of gender discrimination and unequal treatment that violated both the Equal Pay Act and Title XII. Though the lawsuit forged on throughout the USWNT's World Cup run this summer, mediation began in August, after the team returned stateside. But when talks with US Soccer stalled shortly after that, Rapinoe spoke out.
"If and when, and ever, they are willing to have a conversation about equal pay that starts there and goes forward … We're always open for that," Rapinoe told NBC's "Today." "We won't accept anything less than equal pay."
My colleagues and I have covered the 34-year-old striker regularly since she made waves at this summer's World Cup, so I was invited to Monday night's ceremony honoring Rapinoe. Held at Ziegfeld Ballroom, a swanky venue in midtown Manhattan, the event featured a red carpet, bottomless cocktails, and a multi-course meal.
When I arrived, Rapinoe was sitting on a modern white couch in the center of a dim-lit VIP room swirling with supermodels, elite business professionals, and other high-profile athletes - including Shaquille O'Neal. And as I made my way down to the main reception area, I noticed more of the same. I couldn't help but take stock of the predominantly white, male, wealthy, and middle-aged makeup of the audience.
It struck me as ironic given everything Rapinoe stands for. As it turns out, this irony wasn't lost on the evening's honoree, either.
She began her speech by thanking her teammates, friends, loved ones, and "all the people who make whatever the hell this all is happen" before pivoting to the importance of truth.
"As I stand here today, I find myself dead struck by the gravity of responsibility of what it means to bear witness and how incredibly important that is," Rapinoe said. "To bear witness, by definition, is to show that something exists or is true. Think about that for a second - to show that something exists or is true. As members of the media and myself as a public figure - whatever that means - to have some sort of platform goes so far beyond any playing field or any story that we could write. And while we don't get to choose what it is that we witness, we are the gatekeepers of those stories, and we do get to decide how we bear witness to the world around us and to the truth that we see."
Then, Rapinoe spoke some truth to power right then and there.
"Is it true that I am the fourth woman deserving of this award? I don't think so," she said. "Is it true that so few writers of color deserve to be featured in this publication? Is it true that so few women's voices deserve to be heard and deserve to be read in this publication? I don't think so."
Rapinoe's speech was emblematic of her personal brand of heroism and the fearless defiance with which she approaches all of her passions. On the pitch, she cowers in the face of no opponent and boldly attacks each defender who challenges her. Off the field, she is unflinching in her advocacy and unapologetic in her confrontation of each instance of injustice she encounters - even within systems from which she explicitly benefits. She knows that it's her superpower, and she said as much on Monday.
"And thus, my success, let's get into that," she said. "I think my success bears witness to not only the necessity of speaking truth to power but also just the power of truth."
Few athletes have so bravely stood against inequitable institutions at the height of their careers. She joins an elite group including prominent figures like Muhammad Ali, who was convicted of draft evasion during the Vietnam War; Billie Jean King, who advocated for equal prize money for men and women's tennis champions; and Colin Kaepernick, who was blackballed from the NFL after kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against people of color.
Like those three transcendent athletes, Rapinoe forever altered society as we know it. She's inspired a generation of women to take up space and fight hard for fair treatment unabashedly. She helped bring an unprecedented level of attention to women's soccer - and perhaps women's professional sports on the whole - in the United States, with NWSL games drawing record-breaking crowds after the World Cup and the WNBA enjoying a ratings bump during the 2019 season.
Indeed, it's difficult to argue that Rapinoe hasn't helped paint women's team sports in a new, more serious light. The magnitude and seemingly enduring nature of that impact is the idea that young girls can more realistically dream of making a comfortable living playing the sport they love thanks in large part to their outspoken idol.
That makes the significance of her Sportsperson of the Year win look comparatively small.