Ten days into the second half of 2019, we already have a leader for Sportsperson of the Year, an award presented by a variety of media outlets, the most visible being the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award given by Sports Illustrated.
It is a rare sports honor insofar as it is designed to reward impact beyond mere athletic feats. The Golden State Warriors, back-to-back NBA champs willing to exercise social conscience, earned the distinction in 2018. The year before, Houston Astros star Jose Altuve and Houston Texans star J.J. Watt were honored excelling on the field and also their contributions to disaster relief in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
Here in 2019, Megan Rapinoe is blowing away the field.
After invading foreign soil and dominating the best of international competition, the United States Women’s National Team returned home to the classic America experience of adoration and derision. The most passionate reaction, both ways, is reserved for Rapinoe, the co-captain and team leader who has been subjected to the centuries-old tradition reserved for women who see injustice and inequality and dare to push back.
She’s the lesbian agitator that, you know, keeps getting political, bringing up such matters as social inequality based on race, sex and ethnicity, as well as pay inequality for women.
Rapinoe was crusading again Wednesday, addressing a crowd of tens of thousands in New York City after she and her teammates were celebrated with a parade down Broadway. She said things people need to hear, the kind of comments that have resulted in her being described as a “polarizing” personality.
“We have to be better,” Rapinoe implored. “We have to love more, hate less. We’ve got to listen more and talk less. We’ve got to know that this is everybody’s responsibility. Every single person here. Every single person who is not here. Every single person who doesn’t want to be here. Every single person who agrees and doesn’t agree. It’s our responsibility to make the world a better place.”
Yet there are Americans who claimed not to root for the American soccer team because of Rapinoe, who spares no one in her expressed pursuits. She is another in an expanding list of high-profile athletes making it abundantly clear that she would not accept an invitation to the White House from President Donald Trump.
Rapinoe has made clear that she can’t accept the man’s agenda, both implicit as well as explicit, and reiterated as much Tuesday in an interview CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“Your message is excluding people,” she said. “You're excluding me, you're excluding people that look like me, you're excluding people of color, you're excluding Americans that maybe support you.”
She pointed out that the Trump agenda -- identified by the MAGA acronym -- is a call to return to a time in America when racial, ethnic and sexual and discrimination was legislated.
“It might have been great for a few people, and maybe America is great for a few people right now,” she said. “But it's not great for enough Americans in this world," she said.
"You have an incredible responsibility as the chief of this country to take care of every single person, and you need to do better for everyone.”
Women who so brazenly challenge men of power tend to receive the figurative backhand. Go away. The president’s response last week to Rapinoe’s vow to not visit the Trump White House amounted to “Shut up and win.”
They did win, posting a 2-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final on Sunday for their second consecutive World Cup victory. They received a standing ovation from the crowd in Lyon, France. Rapinoe, who led the way, received the Golden Ball award (best player) and the Golden Boot award (top scorer).
But Rapinoe will not shut up. Neither will her teammates; Alex Morgan, the Silver Boot award winner who, like Rapinoe, donates a portion of her earnings to soccer-related charities, said in May that she wouldn’t accept an invitation from the Trump White House.
Upon returning home, the national team should be held up as role models for humanity as well as ambassadors for a sport and a country. They shouldn’t have to tolerate disdain from the far-right, often the first to chant “U-S-A, U-S-A,” after American success on a global stage.
Rapinoe is here to win soccer games while reminding us of how much work we have to do.
“This country was founded on a lot of good ideals,” she said recently. “But it was also founded on slavery. We just need to be really honest about that and be really open about talking about that.”
If Ali were alive, he’d be honored to present any award, much less one named for his commitment to social activism, to Rapinoe.