Even though Megan Rapinoe could only attend the NCAA women's basketball tournament in cutout form, it felt like she was there. The U.S. women's national team superstar spent game days tweeting about inequality, sure, but also about the games themselves.
The cross-promotion between women's sports leagues is rising, and Rapinoe is involved not out of requirement but out of pure fandom.
"I have to be really honest, this s*** is cool. That’s why," Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports of her ongoing tournament commentary. "Like, yes, of course I have a vested interest. I’m a female athlete. I think the s*** that I do is cool. I think the stuff my team does is cool. We win all the time, we’re fun to watch.
"I obviously am doing it purposely to use the platform that I have to talk about whatever sports are happening, but I think in the end it’s very exciting."
Rapinoe will be off the in-game commentary and back on the pitch this weekend when women's soccer takes center stage. The USWNT will play Sweden on Saturday and France on Tuesday in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. The NWSL, meanwhile, where Rapinoe plays for the OL Reign, kicks off its season Friday with the 2021 Challenge Cup.
The two-time FIFA World Cup champion has been busy off the pitch to start 2021. She testified at a Congressional committee hearing last month and along with USWNT teammate Margaret "Midge" Purce met with President Joe Biden at the White House for Equal Pay Day. In February she watched U.S. Soccer officially repeal the rule colloquially known as the "Rapinoe Rule" requiring players to stand during the national anthem.
"It would be a huge stain and a giant embarrassment on all of U.S. Soccer if it didn’t actually get repealed, so I think that’s positive," she said.
Rapinoe spoke exclusively with Yahoo Sports about the last few months as part of her Women's History Month partnership with Smirnoff and SideBarre, a Black women-owned small business that hosted the star for a class.
Rapinoe on U.S. Soccer anthem rule discussion
The U.S. Soccer Federation voted to repeal the anthem kneeling rule in June 2020 at the urging of the USWNT, USMNT and new federation president Cindy Parlow Cone. The decision was not permanent until U.S. Soccer's full membership voted to repeal at the annual general meeting in February.
Rapinoe, who first took a knee in 2016 in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, called it a formality.
"I do think it’s important," Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports. "It’s important what’s on the books. It’s important what things are written down and the policies that companies and organizations have. So it’s another good step forward and another step that shows their commitment to doing better and being a good partner and an active leader in the space."
More than 70 percent of the ruling body voted to repeal. Paralympian Seth Jahn delivered a seven-minute racist speech in favor of the rule and cited the talking point that those who kneel disrespect the flag and military.
"It’s unfortunate that he was given the platform for so long," Rapinoe said. "And I think everyone who's really, truly interested in progress and in breaking down white supremacy and systemic racism in this country, they’re not having that conversation at all. We’re moving past that. And people who are still having conversations are using the military as a shield for not wanting to talk about the racism we have in our country.
"That’s really unfortunate and a lot of people are still doing that, but that’s really not where it’s at and you kind of show your whole ass when you use that as a chief argument to not kneel."
Parlow Cone issued a statement reiterating the repeal was about the "right to peacefully protest racial inequalities and police brutality.” Jahn was removed from the U.S. Soccer athletes' council within days.
'Tone shift' in US Soccer federation, equal pay
Rapinoe said the tone of U.S. Soccer is shifting thanks in part to Parlow Cone, and it's been seen in statements about Black Lives Matter and the anthem.
"There has been a tone shift I think in the federation but, you know, I’m not really looking for just a tone shift," Rapinoe said. "We’re going to need a lot more than just them changing the way that they speak about things."
One of those is the equal pay case between USWNT players and the federation. Players can move forward with the appeal of the judge's dismissal of that part of the case once the unequal working conditions settlement is finalized.
"I feel good about [the case] obviously because I know what the reality is. I know how strong our case is," Rapinoe said. "I feel like probably for both sides a settlement would be the best thing if we can get to a place that’s fair and equitable. And that makes us whole from discrimination in the past and sets us a future deal that will make sure that there’s fair and equitable pay and we don’t get into this situation again."
Women supporting women in sports
Rapinoe has always been a big NBA fan and supported the WNBA, but she garnered new respect for the latter by attending games during her relationship with fiancée Sue Bird.
"The people that troll the WNBA or troll women’s sports, they don’t watch it," Rapinoe said. "And they’re not athletes themselves; maybe they think they are and they want to be. And I think anyone who actually does watch consistently, you can’t help but be entertained.
"And I think without being told all the time that this product is s****y and it’s not as exciting or the value isn’t there, if we just flip the script and say, actually, just watch it and we’ll see."
Rapinoe backed up her point by noting Louisville senior and WNBA prospect Dana Evans scoring 29 in the Sweet 16 and the Paige Bueckers vs. Caitlin Clark freshman showdown that drew activist Megan out on Twitter. As the future wife of a UConn legend, she said she feels she does have to root for the Huskies and she's just as enthralled by Bueckers as everyone else.
"Watching Paige Bueckers play is very exciting. This kid is like, weighs 100 pounds, and is so gangly and a freshman and she’s tearing it up," Rapinoe said.
Rapinoe recognizes the disparities in media coverage, merchandise offerings and basic game information for viewers, so she took to sharing it on Twitter.
"We’ve really honestly just been so stifled and I think it’s actually incredible the level of success of whether it’s the WNBA, the NWSL, the women’s national team, the NCAA," Rapinoe said. "The level of success we’ve been able to achieve with the discrimination and the stifling that we’ve had to deal with is actually the story. So, in the end, I just love it and I believe in it and I think it’s dope."
Rapinoe partners on Black-owned business initiative
Rapinoe is careful how she uses her platform and with what businesses she aligns. In a Q&A with attendees of the Smirnoff x SideBarre activation barre class, she said she wants companies to have a real commitment to social and racial justice and equality.
The partnership with Smirnoff was to support the Black-owned business by introducing fans of four celebrities, including Rapinoe, to the barre class and D.C.-based location. Smirnoff also pledged $50,000 to Black Girl Ventures, a foundation funding Black and brown women founders.
"Businesses don’t just grow on their own, they really don't," Rapinoe said. "Unless you’re self-funded and you just have obviously all this money. But very few people have that ability."
Studies suggest about 97 percent of all venture funding goes to white men and of the three percent left, one percent goes to Black-owned businesses and even less to Black woman-owned ones.
"To be able to start to change that and actually be able to put money — which is the only way that we show people that we care about people in this society really, is capital and financial investment and rewarding people approximately for the work that they’re doing — I think is a really great first step," Rapinoe said. "I say this all the time for individuals, but for brands as well, everybody has a responsibility to do something. We’re all part of this ecosystem and this world, together, and so what is that way that you can do something?"
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