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Megan Rapinoe and the politics of sports

Soccer: Women's World Cup Victory Tour-Trinidad & Tobago at USA Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The personal is political.

This is one of the first things you learn in any identity-based class.

The personal is political.

What matters to us in our personal lives tends to be what we fight for in the political arena. It makes sense; things that happen to Other People don’t interest us as much as what happens to us every day. Lived experiences trump theoretical exercises.

Here is Megan Rapinoe’s lived experience: she is a gay white woman in America. Some parts of her identity grant her privilege; others experience oppression. Different parts of her identity interact in different ways. That’s true of most people. As a gay person, she has a lived experience in this country that a straight person does not have.

And as a gay white woman, she just made a gesture of allyship to Colin Kaepernick, who is currently in the middle of a national quagmire over his refusal to stand for the anthem before NFL games.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” said Kaepernick of his decision to sit.

Rapinoe said she knows that feeling, albeit from her perspective as a gay white woman. “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she told American Soccer Now.

The personal is political. What Rapinoe and Kaepernick have experienced as Americans is that they haven’t entirely been treated like Americans — at least, not like what nostalgic pop culture hazy golden-sunlight-washed Americana would have you believe is the typical American experience. And so Megan Rapinoe, seeing how Colin Kaepernick is being treated for expressing the truth of his lived experience, and the lived experiences of millions of other Black Americans, decided to use her position to amplify his message.

Here is part of what she told Julie Foudy about her decision:

Note that Rapinoe also said this to ASN: “It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course…” [emphasis added]

The personal is political. What is personal to Kaepernick in this instance is not personal to Rapinoe. She experiences privilege as a white person in America that Kaepernick does not. It matters that she specifies she is supporting what Kaepernick and Black Americans are fighting for, but doesn’t want to displace their voices.

It is important for our discussions of Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the anthem to do at least two things:

  1. Use her example as an example for other allies, encouraging them to also express their support in a way that amplifies the message without usurping the place of who is ultimately speaking
  2. Lead back to the message underpinning Kaepernick’s protest, which is that Black Americans experience systemic discrimination at all levels

But why does she have to speak at all, some people ask. Can’t she just play soccer?

The personal is political. Megan Rapinoe, the person, is a gay athlete. She cannot separate out being gay into a walled-off pocket that does not exist when she’s on the pitch. Colin Kaepernick, the person, is a Black athlete. He does not stop being Black just because he has a football in his hands. Asking to ignore the truth of their lived experiences in favor of simply watching them play a sport means valuing your personal enjoyment over the discomfort of confronting the ideas they are sharing.

And in any case, American sports, as American institutions and centers of American community, cannot escape that they are inherently political. They are a reflection and product of American society; they do not exist in a vacuum void of all external influence.

The personal is political. Perhaps this is why people who are not gay, who are not Black, who do not experience some form of systemic oppression, wish that Megan Rapinoe or Colin Kaepernick would just shut up and play. To them these things are political without the personal, and therefore are easy to dismiss as insubstantial theory.

But it should be personal. Every person who claims the identity of American should be concerned with all the meaning and nuance and consequence wrapped up therein, because this country is only as good as the way it treats the poorest and meanest of its people.

Just take a moment and listen to what Kaepernick, and now by extension Rapinoe, are asking you to hear. Black people are suffering. They are asking you to acknowledge that suffering as the first step to ending it, and that is a message worth listening to.