Megan Rapinoe’s profanity-accented and premature refusal to travel to the White House if the USWNT won the Women’s World Cup has been extensively reported. Since the story first broke, arguments have raged both in the media and on social media about whether her statements, and the echoed sentiments of teammates Alex Morgan and Ali Krieger, reflect positively or poorly on her patriotism and professionalism. To me, this conversation is irrelevant. I don’t doubt for a moment her patriotism or her professionalism as a footballer, but I seriously question her maturity, and for two reasons far more important than the subjective contours of patriotism.
First, I lament the rapidly fading respect in this country for the institution of the presidency. There is a difference between the person who holds the office of the President of the United States and the office itself, and that difference is important. One of the most beautiful things about being American is the legally protected right to clearly and publicly articulate your differences of opinion with your elected leaders. Nowhere in the world is the freedom of speech more fiercely guarded than here, and that freedom is one of many that make the United States an exceptionally awesome country. But implicit in that right is an obligation to respect the same right for others, particularly those with whom you disagree most passionately.
Failure in that obligation leads to the omnipotence of public opinion. Students of history or literature will recognize that concept as the “tyranny of the majority” presciently cautioned against by Alexis de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago. The obligation is no less important in respect of holders of public office. Fans of President Obama cautioned during his administration that many of those who disagreed with him seemed to be effectively rooting for the failure of his presidency. They pointed out that the failure of a presidency – the institution, not the person – served no American’s interest, regardless of political persuasion. While these commentators may have fallen short in pureness of motivation, they surely succeeded in accuracy of thought. A democracy in which people cannot respect others while disagreeing with them is a short-lived democracy. Indeed, it will Inevitably fail as a democracy and become instead an authoritarian regime dependent on supremacy of power rather than supremacy of ideas.
Second, it is extremely disheartening to me how low the bar has become to be labeled an “activist”. Whether it is Colin Kaepernick having his Holiday Inn Express moment with semiotics, Rapinoe dropping her F-bomb, or either of them taking a knee during the national anthem, real activists would surely agree that these adolescent displays of impertinence hardly constitute activism. When I think of activists, I think of Harriet Tubman, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gloria Steinem, and others. For many of these people, their sacrifice in the name of their cause was both personal and ultimate. For all of them, activism required time, energy, passion, and patience. Even Malala Yousafzai must find it bizarre that being trolled on Twitter by the President can be roughly equated with being shot by the Taliban. And surely no one will disagree that our country could be in a very different place today if the Rev. King had merely taken a knee instead of daring to have a dream.
Rapinoe may well be passionate in her views, but she is no activist. I strongly disagree with her approach to activism, and I likely disagree with her on any number of policy points. But I would respect a true activist, regardless. Were she mature enough to have patience, she would recognize the opportunity she’s missing.
Given that she’s such a talented footballer, perhaps a soccer analogy will help. Making your mark in a soccer game frequently involves position, patience, and poise. The parallels to her current situation are strong. She and her teammates dispatched the Dutch, putting her in position – an audience with President Trump. At that point, a little bit of patience – putting up with someone for whom she strongly does not care – would allow her to demonstrate some poise – sharing clearly, articulately, and concisely her views on LGBTQ+ rights and what she believes Trump should do better in that regard. In the worst case, she is where she began, with a President whose views are starkly at odds with her own. Even brilliant shots are occasionally blocked by goalkeepers. But how sad for everyone involved with her cause if she never bothers trying. We all know the conversion rate for shots not taken. No proper activist would miss such an opportunity. If Rapinoe were even a little bit mature, she wouldn’t miss either, and would earn a lot of respect from people who disagree with her, as well. Instead, her most recent comments suggest she is only willing to engage with Congressional Democrats who already agree with her. How passive.