In 1966, Muhammad Ali, speaking off the cuff, uttered a quote for the ages when he learned that he could be drafted into the army, blurting, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” It was a bracing statement, said before the anti–Vietnam War movement had reached any kind of critical mass. His words gave confidence to college-aged anti-war activists, being dismissed as cowardly and irrelevant. This one sentence also pushed the young black freedom fighters of the day to connect the war abroad with the war—the police dogs, water hoses, and bullets—they were facing at home.
Words have power. Truth has power. Athletes, when they use their platform to speak truth to power, can change the world.
Mark Twain said famously that history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme, and we may have had a rhyming moment this past week, thanks to US Women’s National Soccer Team star Megan Rapinoe. No, Rapinoe is not Muhammad Ali. No one is. But she did uncork a similar kind of statement: the kind that makes your hair stand on end like it was hit with an electrical current; the kind that upsets all the right people.
In a video released by Eight by Eight magazine this week of an interview that took place in January, she was asked about this team visiting Trump’s White House after the tournament. She said, in a similarly off the cuff manner, even with a hint of annoyance, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” On Thursday, during a press conference before the US team faces France in the Women’s World Cup Quarterfinal match, she told reporters, “I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House.”
After two years of individual baseball and football players as well as entire NBA teams shunning this president, usually with rarely spoken motivations, Rapinoe made it clear and made in plain. She didn’t talk around the objections so many athletes have with a bigoted president who cages children. She just said it, and let the chips fall. Donald Trump flipped his wig, with a bizarre multi-tweet rant where he quoted black unemployment statistics, which made many wonder if he thought Megan Rapinoe was in fact African American. He also wrote, “Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team. Be proud of the Flag that you wear.”
He then, in a bizarre turnaround invited the team to the White House saying, “I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer, but Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job! We haven’t yet invited Megan or the team, but I am now inviting the TEAM, win or lose.”
Rapinoe’s words seemed to give confidence to her teammates to speak forcefully, taking some of the weight and spotlight off of her shoulders. Ali Krieger said, “In regards to the ‘President’s’ tweet today, I know women who you cannot control or grope anger you, but I stand by [Megan] & will sit this one out as well. I don’t support this administration nor their fight against LGBTQ+ citizens, immigrants & our most vulnerable.”
Teammate and star player Alex Morgan has also said she has no intention of visiting the White House, telling Time magazine in May that she doesn’t “stand for a lot of things the current office stands for.”
Rapinoe, as I wrote two weeks ago, has already made her bones at the collision of sports and politics, kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and for LGBTQ rights as well as being outspoken for human rights and social justice at every turn. She calls herself “a walking protest” against Trump, and in comments published last month, Rapinoe said that she believes Trump to be a “sexist,” “misogynistic,” and “racist.” She is a member of the organization Athletes for Impact, which aims to support outspoken jocks for justice.
Now Rapinoe has proudly made herself a target not only of Trump but also of his state media at Fox News and his social media minions, ready to bombard her with attacks. They will discover what Trump has already found out. Megan Rapinoe cannot be coerced and will not be compliant. Like Muhammad Ali, Megan Rapinoe is unbreakable. That fact is precisely what drives the Trumps of this world round the bend, just as surely as Ali did with the generals and armchair imperialists of his day.
“I’m not going to the fucking White House.” Let it ring across the land.