We don’t always admit it, but we Americans love sports heroes who make waves.
Some now-retired athletes like Andre Agassi and Dennis Rodman and current ones like Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James started their careers with very visible swagger, then won championships to prove their detractors wrong. Doing so, they’ve quieted the critics who claimed that they are all mouth. Others, like 1967 Boston Marathon runner Kathrine Switzer, stepped onto the scene quietly, and then—bam— changed sports and history forever.
Two-time World Cup champion and 2019 Golden Boot winner Megan Rapinoe is probably a combination of both: Someone who walks with a big stick (and maybe a little swagger too) while also affecting the conversations we have as a nation. It doesn’t hurt that she put on an excellent performance throughout the 2019 FIFA World Cup.
But it’s not just athletes who make waves. We also appreciate those who challenge the system and conquer old records. We love players who are firebrands, or “disrupters,” to use a glossy business world term.
And yet, history shows that long after their careers are over, we embrace the most groundbreaking sports stars with open arms, despite the noise they might make. Moreover, we pay little mind to the things they may have said that we didn’t love or don’t agree with 100%. After all, we’re not Russia.
Think Muhammad Ali, who in 1964 was a brand new fighter, then named Cassius Clay, unknown to most Americans. Clay let his mouth run wild leading up to his battle with the world heavyweight champion, the fearsome bruiser Sonny Liston. When Clay took on Liston, the reigning champ was considered unbeatable and Clay faced 7-1 odds of being beat, before besting Liston to win in seven rounds. After winning the heavyweight title Ali remained outspoken for years, not just about his abilities but also about the Vietnam War, social justice and racism in America. Despite contentious debates that surrounded him, Muhammad Ali is remembered as a national treasure.
Think 1980s sports heroes, too. During the Reagan Years—an eight year span which some Americans prefer to remember as the epitome of pristine convention and frictionless patriotism— new athletes of the decade set traditions askew and the challenged the old order.
In April 1986, a second-year NBA player named Michael Jordan rocked the stalwart in the Eastern Conference, dropping 63 points during a playoff game (and an unwinnable series) against a Boston Celtics squad made up of five future Hall of Famers, that include Larry Bird and Bill Walton. That season Jordan averaged only 22.7 points per game (his second-worst), and at that point the Chicago Bulls’ disrupter hadn’t won anything but season games. But Jordan would go on to win six NBA championships and 10 scoring titles, and became revered as the best player of all time.
During that same time in the 1980s, professional tennis was disrupted by women born in other countries. Martina Navratilova won Wimbledon twice before 1981, the year she gained American citizenship after defecting from communist Czechoslovakia. Over her career, Navratilova dominated and would win 18 Grand Slam titles in a game whose news headlines were commanded by men. Later, German-born Steffi Graf would dominate the sport to similar measure, with 22 Grand Slam singles titles between 1987 and 1999. Both Navratilova and Graf were outspoken, but we don’t look on them as anything less than legends in sport and national heroes.
Since then, women have continued to make strides as competitors and as high-earning superstars. Yet, even the most elite athletes still very often don’t get the respect they deserve. Take any of the times Serena Williams has been asked ridiculous questions by tennis reporters, or when Norway forward and Ballon D’Or winner Ada Hegerberg was asked to twerk. Despite an often-backwards narrative, more often than not our women athletes display a higher level of grace both on and off the field than their male counterparts. They don’t ask anything extra for exhibiting this grace and their sporting prowess other than respect and equal pay.
Team player, midfield maestro
Two weeks ago, when I interviewed Mia Hamm, Hamm cited Rapinoe’s versatility and ability to create space and scoring opportunities. Brandi Chastain, Hamm’s 1999 teammate, called Rapinoe “the most unique player in the world right now, with her personality, passion and approach” and said of Rapinoe, “At any point, she can turn a game on its head.”
That said, both Chastain and Hamm cited depth of the entire team instead of heralding one player. In similar fashion, on the field, Rapinoe exhibited an ability not only to score when the U.S. needed goals, but also to make every fellow player better.
Off the field, Rapinoe might say things that turn heads and create news headlines, but she thinks before she speaks and disrupts the system in a positive way while pushing soccer forward, both with her feet and her voice.
Over a 10-day period in which she wrangled with an American President and FIFA, soccer’s international governing authority, Rapinoe didn’t shudder, but only got better each game. She put up riveting performances against Spain and France in the knockout stage. Then after resting against England, Rapinoe scored the first of two goals that beat the Netherlands 2-0 in the final.
Yet long before the first Megan Rapinoe news headline, many of us (millions of us, actually) loved her from the start. We also knew she would come through for her team—and come through big.
Even if Rapinoe and the U.S. Women never set foot in the White House, or even if Rapinoe never scores another goal, that feeling won’t change. Disruptor, team player, world champion, or whatever you’d like to call her, Megan Rapinoe will be revered from here on out as a national treasure.