As part of USF’s line-up of virtual events for Founder’s Week, roughly 1,000 viewers tuned in on Oct. 12 to watch the Silk Speaker Series host two-time World Cup champion and co-captain of the United States women’s national soccer team (USWNT) Megan Rapinoe.
Moderated by Jennifer Azzi, USF’s current associate vice president of development, as well as an Olympian and former USF women’s basketball coach from 2010 to 2016, the event was originally scheduled to take place in March at War Memorial Gym at the Sobrato Center. However, the University’s cancellation of all in-person events in response to COVID-19 pushed the event back to October, albeit in a virtual format.
Rapinoe grew up in nearby Redding, California and got her start in soccer with her sister Rachael. “We were lucky, obviously, to have each other. We got to play in the yard together, it was like one versus one, anything that you could possibly imagine. These knock-down, drag-out, sometimes drawing-blood battles,” Rapinoe said. “We just kind of found that competitive spirit, and I think the freedom of soccer as well, really even at such a young age, I think it kind of spoke to us.”
Rapinoe noted the differences in the duo’s personalities, as evidenced by her grandfather’s nicknames. According to Rapinoe, “Muffin” was Rachael’s nickname because their grandpa thought she was “the sweetest thing on the planet.” Rapinoe’s nickname, however, matched her more dynamic personality. “I’d have these flashes of anger and slam my door and not want to be around anyone, so [Grandpa] called me ‘Ma Barker,’ who was like this notorious female mob boss,” Rapinoe said. “I never obviously went that far, but I think the flashes of anger were sort of in line with Ma Barker.”
As the sisters went down different career paths, Rapinoe credits the burgeoning women’s sports landscape of the ‘90s as a catalyst for her big-league aspirations. “I wanted to be on the national team, and I wanted all those things. I think, in a way, I had no concept of if that was even a possibility,” Rapinoe said. “Seeing 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl for a World Cup game leaves sort of an indelible mark that you can’t erase from your mind. Like wow, that’s possible. That’s a thing that can happen in the world.”
Azzi brought up the ways in which Rapinoe and the USWNT have changed the landscape of professional sports, from lobbying for equal pay with their male counterparts to redefining the public’s perception of an athlete.
She shared an anecdote from one of her son’s friends, who proudly wore Rapinoe’s jersey and described her as the best soccer player in the world. “That was it. It wasn’t ‘she’s a female.’ It was the coolest thing ever,” Azzi said. “I think the impact you guys are having is culture-changing.”
Rapinoe echoed Azzi’s sentiment, saying, “We’re literally seeing the world change before our very eyes and getting to have a little small fingerprint on that, it’s just incredible.” Rapinoe acknowledged that young girls now have more women athletes to look up to, which increases the visibility of women’s sports. “It just shows me that all of this stuff is just learned. If you only see men all the time, you’re gonna learn that’s what sports looks like. That’s what being an elite athlete looks like,” Rapinoe said.
When asked about how her experiences as a lesbian have shaped her, Rapinoe felt her identity has given her a greater understanding of social issues. “I think it’s given me this incredible perspective to talk about not just myself but the entire LGBTQ community as a whole,” she said.
Rapinoe connected instances of being targeted as a gay woman to her decision to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and voice her support for movements such as Black Lives Matter. “I’ve sort of been in that position as a gay person of asking other people, ‘Listen, I know this doesn’t affect you personally, maybe. Or maybe personally, you aren’t gay, but I need you as an ally, and I need you to stand up and say something,’” Rapinoe said, adding that we all have a responsibility to break down societal barriers. “I didn’t, as a gay person, create laws against gay people, just as Black people didn’t create laws against themselves. They didn’t bring themselves here into slavery.”
Discussing how to be a leader on or off the field, Rapinoe said, “I think you have to be able to judge yourself honestly and be able to criticize yourself and take that criticism and know when to kind of put your hand up.” She went on to say, “You’re going to be demanding that of people and at times having to hold people accountable and to account, so if you can’t do that to yourself, or take that yourself, then, I think you’re going to have a problem with doing that for other people.”
In the livestream’s final moments, Rapinoe delivered a resounding message to USF students. “You’re going to be the future. You’re gonna have to save us from all the things that we’ve done all these years,” said Rapinoe. “Not everybody has this platform that I have, but everybody has friends and family and people that they’re around and people can vote and get involved in their communities. I would just encourage you to never think that your voice doesn’t matter; it’s actually massively important.”