Later that summer, in August, Colin Kaepernick started to sit, then kneel, during the national anthem before San Francisco 49ers preseason games. While a smattering of other NFL players joined him in various fashions, in September 2016, Rapinoe became the first athlete outside of the NFL to kneel during the anthem before games with her club team, the Seattle Reign. Rapinoe, who was the first woman on the USWNT to come out as gay, in 2012, said of her decision to kneel: “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future, and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this.” While the U.S. Soccer Federation later issued a rule saying that all players need to stand during the anthem, Rapinoe still stands silently while it is played, without putting her hand over her heart.
Four years ago, a group of prominent members of the USWNT was embroiled in a different lawsuit heading into the 2015 World Cup. Along with athletes from other teams, they were suing FIFA for allowing the women’s games to be played on artificial-turf surfaces, which has never been allowed for international men’s tournaments (turf is less safe, hotter, and alters the way the game is played compared with natural grass). They were unsuccessful in the lawsuit. And Rapinoe, in particular, felt the effects. After the USWNT took the tournament in a thrilling 5–2 win over Japan, the victory tour they were sent on was also played on almost exclusively turf fields. One game was canceled by the USWNT because of poor field conditions after Rapinoe tore her ACL during a training session two days earlier, an injury that took her nearly a year to recover from.
All to say, Rapinoe and the USWNT as a whole are no strangers to the fight that comes with being women athletes—some of whom are gay, some of whom are women of color. This sort of advocacy and outspokenness comes with the territory: When your very identity is challenged in greater society, using your platform as an athlete is more of a necessity than a choice. They are part of a long tradition in which they must fight to show their worth. Before last Friday’s game, how Rapinoe and the team would respond to Trump was unclear, whether the raised stakes would rattle them. But Rapinoe took just five minutes to perfectly bend a free kick into the back of the net, and then in the second half, finished off a cross from Tobin Heath to beat France, 2–1.
Her reply—a laser-focused performance—was reminiscent of the team’s first game in the tournament. The pressure had spent months, even years, mounting, thanks to contract disputes and the pay-equity lawsuit. It was fairly clear that the USWNT would win the opening match against Thailand, but a whiff of doubt still hung in the air: that maybe, just maybe, the stress of it all would get to this team during this tournament.