Society / August 10, 2023

Why the Right Wanted the USWNT to Lose

Conservatives want everything Megan Rapinoe represents—feminism, queerness, anti-racism, reproductive choice, women’s strength—to wither away.

Dave Zirin
USWNT/ Megan Rapinoe reacts to loss to Sweden on the field after penalty kicks in Women's World Cup match

Megan Rapinoe, right, reacts to the United States’ loss to Sweden in the Women’s World Cup soccer match in Melbourne, Australia, on August 6, 2023.

(Scott Barbour / AP Photo)

In left politics, there is a philosophy called “revolutionary defeatism.” It means calling for your own country to lose when it’s engaging in an imperialist war. Such a call is never popular, but it is essential to building internationalism and curbing the lust for conquest. It’s a noble call to end human suffering.

We are now seeing in the United States something that is best described as “reactionary defeatism.” This is the call for the US to lose in its various rivalries with other countries, but not out of some desire to end nationalism or war. Instead, this twisted—and bizarrely fantastical—view is that the United States has given too many “rights” to too many people, and as a result, we are now “losers.” Proponents seem to believe that this country, like Germany in the 1920s, represents a hedonistic hellscape and any humiliation on the world stage is not only welcome but to be cheered.

Reactionary defeatism was on full display when Sweden bounced the United States Women National Team from the 2023 World Cup. The USWNT loss was surprising but not shocking. While the US was going for its unprecedented third straight World Cup, many other countries have made giant strides in their development of women’s soccer. This team was also an uneasy mix of experience and youth, and its coach Vlatko Andonovski engaged in some bewildering substitution patterns. So the USWNT lost. Not expected, but it happens.

In the aftermath, what has both surprised and shocked many—although this has been brewing for some time—is the glee with which this country’s reactionary right wing has responded. They have acted like the ouster of the US women was greater than if the Super Bowl were held on Christmas Day.

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Many commentators on the mainstream sports channels have struggled to explain why a section of the country, led by a vocally joyous Donald Trump, cheered the team’s defeat. Many of the same patriotic souls who wanted to punish Colin Kaepernick and USWNT legend Megan Rapinoe for kneeling during the anthem in 2016 loved seeing the red, white, and blue go down.

The anger, we are told by the Fox News commentators and much of the centrist press, is because the team is polarizing as a result of being too “woke,” although no one seems able to define exactly what that means. Beneath the buzzwords, the hatred comes down to two things, both stupid. The first is that they can’t stand Rapinoe and assume that the team is made up of a bunch of Rapinoe carbon copies, an absurd charge if you know anything about the actual human beings that played on this team. They also can’t stand—although they won’t say it explicitly, choosing in cowardly fashion to hide behind the word “woke”—that this team organized and won equal pay: equal pay they more than deserved by any metric. The USWNT is the most successful, popular soccer squad this country has ever produced, and at minimum they deserved parity in their compensation. It’s great sin is that these are women who refuse to be controlled. Because of that, Trump, an abuser and assaulter of women, finds them intolerable. His followers are along for any ride that valorizes their misogyny.

Yet their joy at seeing the women fail also destroys a central right-wing election talking point. The GOP is running against trans existence by saying that they will “protect women’s sports” from “biological males.” But here conservatives are mocking women athletes and cheering their loss. They have revealed themselves. They don’t want to “protect women’s sports.” They hate women’s sports, because they hate women—or at least women who dare not know their place.

The USWNT and especially Rapinoe do not need the support of parasitical hypocrites who only care about women’s sports if it advances their campaign to eradicate trans kids. But this is what reactionary defeatism is all about: They want Team USA to lose because they want to divide and demoralize people as part of an effort to radically remake this country. They want the US to lose because they want everything Megan Rapinoe—female, queer, anti-racist, pro-choice, outspoken—represents to wither away. They don’t realize: Megan has an army, and it’s an army that, win or lose, won’t be marching backward.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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