Column: Megan Rapinoe faces Trump controversy head-on, then moves on

Megan Rapinoe attends a news conference Thursday in Paris.
(Ian Langsdon / EPA/Shutterstock)

Megan Rapinoe was calm and unapologetic, facing TV cameras and reporters with unflinching poise. Unlike her overexuberant celebration during a rout of hapless Thailand during the first round of the Women’s World Cup, the U.S. team’s co-captain calibrated her emotions perfectly on Thursday in responding to criticism from President Trump about her comments that she would not visit the White House if the team were to be invited after the tournament.

Rapinoe didn’t back down but she didn’t dwell on the spat, either, addressing it early in a news conference timed to promote the U.S. women’s quarterfinal match against France on Friday. She had been scheduled to speak before the president picked up on comments she had made during an interview taped months ago but released only this week, and chided her in a flurry of tweets he sent Wednesday. He initially said that before discussing a White House visit Rapinoe “should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!” He later added he’d invite the team, win or lose, although star scorer Alex Morgan previously said she would not go.

Seated at the dais in a tightly packed room at Parc des Princes and facing reporters from around the world, Rapinoe discussed the squabble as directly and confidently as she deals with her life and her opponents on the pitch. “I’ll just address it head-on and then we can get to the soccer questions,” she said. “I stand by the comment that I made about not wanting to go to the White House, with the exception of the expletive [that preceded ‘White House].’ My mom would be very upset about that.


“But I think obviously, entering with a lot of passion considering how much time and effort and pride we take in the platform that we have and using it for good and leaving the game in a better place, leaving the world in a better place, I don’t think that I would want to go, and I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform and having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and doesn’t fight for the same things that we fight for.

“I’ll just leave it at that,” she said, before adding she would take only soccer-related questions from then on. She stuck to that, easily discussing the skillful and well-coached French team that threatens to end the Americans’ reign as champions. She’s perfectly capable of expressing herself and focusing on soccer, too. One doesn’t preclude the other. “The women’s game in general has grown tremendously. And I guess the task for each team is to try to be the team that is growing as fast as the game is and keeping up on that and even being the one that is pushing the game forward,” she said. “I think France has done a really good job of that.”

Rapinoe, a three-time World Cup participant, is openly gay. She is a vocal advocate of LGBTQ rights and vocal critic of Trump and policies that discriminate against LGBTQ people. She knelt before a national team game in 2016 to support former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his protests on behalf of African Americans and minorities in the U.S., leading the U.S. Soccer Federation to mandate that players stand for the flag and the national anthem. Since then, she has stood with her hands clasped and her voice silent while her teammates sing and hold their right hands over their hearts. To each her own.

But she joined her teammates in filing a federal lawsuit against the U.S. federation to demand equal pay and treatment, a suit that is scheduled to go to mediation after the World Cup ends. And her decision to skip a possible White House trip was supported by teammate Ali Krieger, who also is gay. “In regards to the ‘President’s’ tweet today, I know women who you cannot control or grope anger you but I stand by @mpinoe & will sit this one out as well,” Krieger tweeted Wednesday. “I don’t support this administration nor their fight against LGBTQ+ citizens, immigrants & our most vulnerable.”

Coach Jill Ellis said she’s not worried about the team’s ability to handle this kerfuffle. “It’s part of the makeup of the players. They’re elite people that live on a stage and are always under scrutiny,” Ellis said. “I think this team has a remarkable focus. I think we all support Megan. She knows that. We know we have each other’s backs in there. For our players there’s only one purpose, one mission that we’re here. Comments, media, whatever, it’s all something we can block out pretty easily. I’m not around all the time but at the end of the day, on the training ground, in the meeting rooms, the focus has been phenomenal. We’re just generally excited.”

This is a strong-minded group led by mature leaders. They trust themselves and one another, and Rapinoe’s comments have not changed that. “I’m not worried about the statement in the dressing room. I think we have an incredibly strong dressing room. We’re very open with each other,” she said.

She spoke calmly, unapologetic, striking the right tone. She’s ready for the team’s biggest test here yet. “I like those big moments. Those are the most fun for me,” she said. “I think if you play a sport and you want to be in this profession it’s best to embrace those big moments. That’s where all the goods are. So this is the best stage.” She’s playing a key role onstage and off.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen