Brilliant Defiance: Megan Rapinoe and AOC Are the Future

Let’s begin, as many political conversations do nowadays, with a tale born on Twitter. On June 25, just days before the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team faced its biggest challenge against France in the quarterfinals of the Women’s World Cup, team captain and star player Megan Rapinoe was being interviewed in a video from Eight by Eight Magazine. When asked if she would be excited to visit the White House should her team win, Rapinoe huffed, almost off-handedly: “I’m not going to the f**king White House”:

The video, tweeted by Eight by Eight, went viral and sparked a firestorm on Twitter, not least from the Twitter President himself, who expressed his disapproval in his usual taunting manner:

A few days later, after the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team triumphed over France in the tournament’s biggest game yet — thanks to two major goals from Rapinoe — another tweet came, this time from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), inviting Rapinoe and her team members on a tour of the House of Representatives. Rapinoe replied, almost immediately, to heartily accept the invitation.

Yesterday, as the U.S. women’s team rose to their ultimate triumph in the World Cup Final, beating Netherlands to win their fourth world championship, the stadium erupted as FIFA President Gianni Infantino walked onto the pitch to present the trophy. Chanting in unison, the crowd shouted, “Equal pay! Equal pay!” — referring to the nearly three-to-one pay disparity between the women’s team, the reigning world champions, and the men’s team, which had failed to qualify for the 2018 Men’s World Cup. The women’s squad is paid as little as 38 percent of the men’s salary for games, and their prize bonus for winning the World Cup is less than one-tenth the amount reserved for the men (should they ever get to win the title). Again, among the many tweets echoing the call for pay equality, it was AOC who upped the ante, saying: “At this point, we shouldn’t even be asking for #EqualPay for the #USWNT — we should demand they be paid at least twice as much.”

Even just in sporting terms, this makes rather a bit of sense. While the U.S. men’s team has always been an underdog on the international stage and has faltered in recent years, not even earning a place at the last World Cup, the women’s team has flourished, and is indisputably the best in the world, if not one of the greatest sports teams of all time.

The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team has also eclipsed the men’s team as a lucrative franchise, bringing in more revenue even before the World Cup started. But beyond that, AOC’s propositions sparked thoughts — and fears, I’m sure — of a world where white supremacy and patriarchy do not set the terms of what is important, what is valued, and who is valued. And when Rapinoe meets AOC later this year at the Capitol, we may catch a glimpse of what our nation could — and should — become.

Politics, especially left politics, has had quite a vexed relationship with American sports. International sports, in particular, promote jingoistic displays of patriotism that provoke an allergic reaction in many activists (myself included). But this is soccer. And soccer — an ancient game played in every corner of the world, appropriated and professionalized by British colonialists — has long been a realm of contested politics, and a cultural platform from which liberatory dreams can emerge from oppressive regimes.

Megan Rapinoe, in particular, has used her platform to the fullest. Way before this World Cup, she was the first professional athlete outside of American football to take a knee during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter. An out and proud lesbian, she has championed LGBTQ+ rights on and off the field, even claiming, after scoring two incredible game-winning goals on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, that great sports wouldn’t exist were it not for gay players.

Even now, as the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is engaged in a lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation to address pay disparity, Rapinoe regularly takes U.S. Soccer and FIFA to task for their lack of investment and support for the women’s game. Her teammates have stood in solidarity with her outspoken resistance. So, when she said she wasn’t going to “the f**king White House,” her unapologetic rejection of the standard “American Dream” of recognition from a president that oppresses people like her and so many others was fully consistent with her relentless public fight for a different, and better, vision of the world.

In the political arena, Rapinoe’s defiant voice finds harmony with Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive champion on Capitol Hill. Ocasio-Cortez, like Rapinoe, often bucks the social norms and directives of the dominant political culture, speaking forcefully against the repression and exploitation of oppressed people and bearing witness to the realities they face. Both their narratives reset the terms of political debate, and reframe the world along a vision where “of course” there should be equality, and “of course” the routine injustices that pervade U.S. society shouldn’t exist. Both Rapinoe and Ocasio-Cortez speak and act with confidence that their vision of the world is widely shared by their generation, which, more than any other, is staunchly pro-equality, pro-justice and multicultural; who reject a world of crushing inequality ruled by the 1 percent, where wealth and power are overwhelmingly held by older white men. These domineering men shout fire and fury at them, and these young women shrug it off, as if they were simply other people talking, whose opinions matter no more than any other.

It’s as if they are already living in an alternate United States, where the tyrannical screaming man in the White House is of no importance — Rapinoe, the pink-haired lesbian superstar, will receive her honorable recognition not from the president but from Ocasio-Cortez, the working-class Latinx representative from the Bronx.

Sports, for good or ill, have a central place in the heart of mainstream culture. And teams are seen as microcosms of the people, so the messages they convey, the stories they make, contain particular powers.

There aren’t many instances where this power is used for good politically, but it has happened a few times. In the 1980s, during the Brazilian military dictatorship, one of the country’s most popular and revered local soccer teams, the Corinthians of São Paulo, had a visionary in its captain, Sócrates (known as “The Doctor”). His form of protest, in a place where it was dangerous to speak openly, was prefigurative: He democratized his own club, giving players and fans a voice in the direction of his team. Democracia Corinthiana was a revolutionary experiment, a game of “what if” — giving millions of people a taste of what could be, what would be, if they would fight to realize it.

Like Sócrates, Rapinoe and AOC are making it possible for us to imagine a new order, a new world just yet visible on the horizon. They are giving us a glimpse of a new and different “American Dream” that is shaped by more than the self-proclaimed masters of finance and industry — a U.S. in which the tantrums of rich white men have no power over those who are busy collaborating in its creation. The ultimate dream of radical equality, after all, is for the dispossessed, oppressed and marginalized to have equal power in shaping the world. In the gulf between the old order and the new, Megan Rapinoe and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are denizens of the future we want to live in.