Megan Rapinoe and the political power of sport

It’s official: Megan Rapinoe is ‘The Best.’ At ‘The Best’ FIFA awards, the American winger was officially declared the best female footballer in the world, fending off competition from international teammate Alex Morgan and England’s very own Lucy Bronze. This honour caps an interesting year for the 34-year-old Californian. On the pitch, Rapinoe won the 2019 Women’s World Cup with the US National Team, defending the crown they won in 2015. The world’s best female player was her nation’s talisman, taking home both the golden ball and the golden boot, a fiftieth international goal in the final an apt end to a flawless tournament. Megan’s latest accolade makes her the equivalent of Lionel Messi for the women’s game. 

Rapinoe’s year has been significant off the pitch, too. The American has been a figurehead for activism campaigns for several years, but gained mainstream attention when her political statements became paired with dazzling performances on the pitch. After receiving ‘The Best’ award at the FIFA ceremony on Monday, the world’s top female player gave a calm and authoritative speech on socio-political issues including racism, homophobia and gender inequality, imploring the world to stand up against such injustices.

The Rapinoe case study raises an interesting question: what is the role of sport in political discourse? Fundamentally, the function of sport is to entertain. Megan Rapinoe and her colleagues, both male and female, are entertainers. Athletes they may be, but without corporate investment and a paying audience demanding entertainment, Messi, Ronaldo, Rapinoe and thousands of others would be playing purely for fun, not for thousands of pounds per week. Some do not want a fusion between politics and entertainment, as the latter is intended to be a form of escapism from the depressing drudgery of the former. Furthermore, particularly when played on an international level, sport has the potential to open old wounds: a Euro 2016 clash between Switzerland and Serbia left a sour taste when tensions between ethnic Kosovans and Serbs surfaced on the pitch.  

However, it seems too simplistic, even myopic, to dismiss the political power of sport in such a way. Stars like Rapinoe have a tremendous platform, with the eyes and ears of millions receiving their every word. The star undeniably speaks out on important issues, as football has too often proven an ugly echo chamber for the ugly views of a vocal minority.

This is particularly true of racism. Progress has undoubtedly been made, but the racial abuse of Raheem Sterling, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, both online and in stadiums across Europe, reveals a pervasive and disgusting form of discrimination in the minds of a minority of supporters. While Rapinoe obviously cannot and will not be condemned for her statements against this problem, her generic, profile-raising comments are not part of a practical solution. Figureheads like Raheem Sterling have gone an important step further, as his career has highlighted the unfair media treatment of black players and made it more difficult for such ridiculous journalism to continue to reach the shelves. There is evidence that sport is a vehicle for racial cohesion, as the emergence of Mohamed Salah at Liverpool coincided with a decrease in hate crime in the city, but Rapinoe’s promotional campaign does not offer a real-world solution. 

Rapinoe’s status as a gay star is, however, important. England does not contain an openly gay male professional footballer, and the 1998 suicide of Justin Fashanu, who publicly came out eight years previously, proves the difficulty in admitting ones sexuality to the world. Things have changed, and hopefully Rapinoe, a gay world champion, helps to create an accepting atmosphere in sport. 

However, political rhetoric in sport can be divisive rather than inclusive. Worse, it is often boring and self-interested. Rapinoe’s requests for equal pay between male and female players are ludicrous and illogical: football is a business, its economics governed by free markets. The salaries of players are determined by the demand they can generate for their services, the entertainment value they provide to paying fans. Maybe Rapinoe can request equal pay when the women’s World Cup generates the revenue and viewership of the men’s edition, as the former garners 28% of the attention the latter receives. Rapinoe’s achingly predictable critique of Donald Trump also adds nothing of value to American political discourse, and seeks popularity. Rapinoe, and sports stars in general, should be encouraged to speak out, but should offer practical efforts rather than generic sentiments. 

 

Image: Jamie Smed via Flickr

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