Opinion | USWNT redefines what it means to be an athlete

By Loretta Donoghue, For The Pitt News

This past week, co-captain of the United States women’s national soccer team and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Megan Rapinoe announced she will join her sister Rachael’s cannabis business. Rapinoe will join as a board advisor, strategic partner and athlete ambassador for Mendi, a CBD company that specializes in making recovery products with the non-psychoactive cannabis extract for athletes.

The world-class soccer player has made clear that her goals for Mendi are diversifying the cannabis industry, ending the stigma around CBD usage and working to legalize CBD and cannabis, noting that jail sentences for cannabis possession disproportionately affect people of color.

As if being on one of the best women’s soccer teams in the history of the sport wasn’t enough, Rapinoe and the other 22 athletes on the USWNT have started to completely redefine our ideas about the world of female athletics — what female athletes can look like, how female athletes should be treated and how athletes of any gender can use their platforms. Other athletes should look to USWNT to understand how to use their voices and positions to create change in athletics and society in general.

One of the most prominent ways the USWNT is changing athletics is through diverse representation. The team has five openly gay LGBTQ+ players. Tied with the Netherlands, this was the most of any team in the Women’s World Cup. Two players on the team, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger, are even engaged. In addition, head coach throughout the World Cup Jill Ellis was the only openly lesbian coach of the tournament. The USWNT, with its significant LGBTQ+ composition, openly supports LGBTQ+ rights, wearing rainbow jerseys during Pride month and offering LGBTQ+ support through official team communications. This representation and acceptance helps make other members of the LGBTQ+ community — especially LGBTQ+ youth — feel more visible, and it normalizes the idea that athletes can be of any sexuality. Perhaps most importantly, visibility and normalization of LGBTQ+ diversity can lessen the harsh homophobia that 84% of Americans have witnessed or experienced in sports.

The USWNT is also changing our ideas of how pregnancy and motherhood fit into female athletics, represented by Jessica McDonald and Alex Morgan. McDonald, the only mother on the U.S. women’s soccer team, has been vocal about the difficulty with balancing parenting and professional soccer. However, she has not let the extra pressure pull her down, doing whatever it takes to balance motherhood and work. By being a World Cup champion as well as a mother, McDonald gives us vital representation, showing women can thrive in multiple aspects of life.

Morgan, one of the most popular players in the world, recently took to social media to announce that she is pregnant with her first child. This news comes at a time where pregnant athletes’ contracts have been terminated as a result of performance drops due to their pregnancies. At a broader level, pregnancy discrimination throughout every work sector is still rampant, from denied raises to the risk of being fired. By being one of the most recognizable players in the world and openly celebrating her pregnancy, Morgan is normalizing the concept that women can be pregnant while still having a career. Representation matters, and if other athletic programs follow the precedent the USWNT is setting, we will soon have a diverse and accepting view of who can be an athlete.

Apart from their exceptional athletic abilities, one characteristic most USWNT players share is their outspoken advocacy on a variety of issues. Perhaps the most well-known issue the players have been vocal about is equal pay. The USWNT filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation — as Rapinoe put it, the players are working to win “equal investment and equal care of both the men’s and women’s sides.” Many players even cited the lawsuit as a source of motivation to win the World Cup, knowing another gold medal would further solidify their cause. Instead of just being content with winning one of the most prestigious international tournaments, the players have immediately turned their spotlight into a chance to advocate for gender equality.

Unfortunately, problems of equal pay are not limited to the USWNT. Nations across the globe, from Norway to Nigeria, have also faced gender discrimination. Fortunately, the USWNT’s decision to advocate for equality has encouraged other teams to do the same. If athletic programs are capable of standing up for themselves, they should do so. Even if they don’t win what they’re fighting for, their struggle can inspire other teams to fight for equality as well.

Players have continued to use their platform for other issues as well. Rapinoe, for example, knelt before a National Women’s Soccer League game in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick shortly after he first knelt. Like Kaepernick, Rapinoe cited her protest as a call to end police brutality and racial injustices. Rapinoe is one of the most prominent white athletes to kneel during the national anthem — she went as far as to kneel before a USWNT match. Using her position of power and popularity, Rapinoe chose to go beyond the world of soccer to tackle one of our nation’s most pressing issues.

Although Rapinoe was the lone player of the USWNT to kneel, she has also been a part of group efforts for certain issues. Rapinoe, with teammates Christen Press and Tobin Heath and former teammate Meghan Klingenberg, launched “re-inc,” a company that sells gender-neutral clothing. The company aims to “boldly reimagine the status quo,” by breaking down gender stereotypes in the clothing industry. Using the praise they have gained through their years with the USWNT, these athletes are working to become examples of powerful women in yet another male-dominated field.

The USWNT is undeniably one of the best women’s soccer teams in the world. With every win we are reminded of their sheer talent, but we also see how they are changing our society off the field. By reshaping who we perceive as female athletes, by breaking down the double standards we have set in the treatment of male versus female athletes and by using their position of fame for advocacy, the USWNT is like no other. The USWNT is changing what it means to be an athlete, and we can only hope that other athletic teams become as diverse, accepting and inspiring.