Taking the Knee
Rapinoe also offers a fascinating first-hand view of the intense politics around efforts by professional athletes to join the broader protests against racism in America. An early participant in ‘kneeling’ protests (though not the first: she chronicles the gradual spread of the movement among different sports and athletes), she was stunned by the backlash, especially considering how warmly her activism around LGBTQ rights had been received.
“There is a particular kind of baffled outrage reserved by white people for other white people they consider to be ‘betraying’ their race,” she writes, and that includes not only members of the public but also the professional sports associations that have played such a shameful role in recent years working to uphold white supremacy by targeting players who protest racism. Rapinoe was sidelined by her coach and team management in response to her solidarity efforts with Black Americans, and her account of the difficult process of deciding when and where and how to protest is honest and insightful. She was disappointed that more of her colleagues–especially white athletes–didn’t join her stand. Some of her family, friends, and colleagues criticized her, saying she ought to be more ‘strategic’ about how to protest, lest people stop taking her seriously or take away her public platform.
“This criticism was an expression of privilege,” she writes. “For black people, the effects of protesting against police brutality couldn’t be mitigated through planning. For millions of Americans, there was no luxury of ‘choice’ around the issue of racism, and if my actions had caused stress among those for whom this wasn’t the case, maybe that was no bad thing.”
“I understood [other players] were afraid of losing their livelihoods. But when it came to stars of that magnitude, with that kind of wealth and power, fear of blowback just wasn’t an adequate excuse.”
During the lead-up to the 2019 FIFA championship, Rapinoe found herself in a social media crossfire with Trump after an interview aired in which she said she would refuse to visit the Trump White House, a routine practice for winning teams. This too was an act of solidarity. Although Rapinoe would ebulliently exclaim, “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team!” to reporters after the US beat France in the quarterfinals, a point she emphasizes repeatedly is the intersectionality of rights struggles, and the need for persons of all identities to stand up for each other. An important part of her own political awakening was realizing the intersections of these struggles, and once she did, she also realized the impossibility of not standing up for others in their fight.
“There was no point campaigning for one cause without laying it on the line for another. When I came out, the support of the athletic community and the straight world more generally – the media, the sports world, the business world of my sponsors – was huge. Those who are discriminated against shouldn’t have to fight alone, and leaving advocacy to the marginalized group itself – the group most at risk of dismissal or reprisal – is, frankly, outrageous…You can’t defend gay people without understanding the threat posed to black people and other people of color by their enemies.”
This sensibility infuses her efforts on the sports field. Especially in the wake of Trump’s efforts to undermine democracy and his support for white supremacists, she says, “We were playing for diversity, democracy, inclusion. We were playing for the right to be different and to still be respected. We were playing for equal rights, equal pay, and the glory of the women’s game. We were playing to make an argument that winning didn’t mean stomping on anyone else, but doing everything you could to support them.”
One Life is a delightful read, whether it’s for the sports or the political insight. Rapinoe’s upbeat attitude–confident yet thoughtful, determined yet fun–echoes her performance on the field. It injects a welcome dose of courageous optimism in a world that desperately needs it. She closes by reminding readers that however overwhelming systemic injustice may seem, fighting it requires an individual choice made by each of us.
“Real change…is in the choices we make every day. It’s in how we talk, who we hire, and what we permit others to say in our presence. It’s in reading more, thinking more, considering a different perspective. At its simplest, it’s in whether we’re willing to spend even five minutes a day thinking about how we can make the world better.”
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