World champion Megan Rapinoe on fighting for justice, changing the game

Smiling at the crowd, Rapinoe candidly shares her experience as a female athlete. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

Marked by her hot pink hair and magnetic swagger, Megan Rapinoe, soccer superstar, spoke to students at the University of Miami Thursday, Oct. 10, about her career and her fight for justice.

Rapinoe came off a record-breaking summer, where she played in her third World Cup, however this time as the co-captain of the team. Undefeated, the U.S. Women’s National Team became back-to-back champs at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, defeating the Netherlands 2-0 in the finals.

Smiling at the crowd, Rapinoe candidly shares her experience as a female athlete. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

The panel discussion with Rapinoe marked the third installment of the “What Matters to U” series, an event coordinated by the Student Engagement Planning Agency under UM’s Student Government. What Matters to U launched last year with speakers Bill Nye in the fall, who educated students on climate activism and actor Ken Jeong in the spring, who highlighted his experience as a minority in film.

The event was moderated by two prominent female leaders on campus, Shirelle Jackson, the senior associate athletic director of student athlete development, and Claudia DeLorenzo, the president of the Greek Ally Union, an organization designed to bridge the gap between the LGBTQ+ and greek communities on campus.

An all female stage, moderators Shirelle Jackson and Claudia DeLorenzo mediate discussion on Megan Rapinoe's career and experience. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

James Lai, the chair of SEPA, said that the committee chose to bring Rapinoe to campus because of her relevance and her representation of many young people.

“We’re at a crossroads in our lives here in college, and she is a perfect role model for how we can use our own platform to do some good,” said Lai, a junior majoring in biomedical engineering.

With 2.2 million followers on Instagram and nearly 900,000 followers on Twitter, Rapinoe constantly shares her opinions on issues that matter to her. During the discussion on Thursday, she urged students to do the same, telling them “Your voices are important and powerful.”

The fight for equal pay

Now a household name, Rapinoe, along with her teammates, uses her platform in the fight for equal compensation among men and women in professional sports.

The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup garnered unprecedented public support for equal pay. This was especially true in America, as the U.S. team dominated the international stage yet again, just a year after the U.S. Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

While the U.S. Men’s soccer team has yet to win any major tournament, the women now have three World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals under their belt.

Heightened fan support is evident by the viewership of the 2019 FIFA final, which broke records in the U.S., and surpassed that of the 2018 FIFA men’s final by 22 percent, according to a report by CNBC.

In light of their global success and support back home, Rapinoe said that the women’s national team has nothing left to prove.

“We’re back to back champions, we won every game. And I think we’ve done that all with not the same investment, historically.” This lopsided investment is present not only in salaries or prize money, but is also shown in the marginal money paid to female athletes from corporate sponsorships, as compared to their male counterparts, Rapinoe explained.

Support for the USWNT is shared among both men and women, which Jackson said opens doors for everyone.

“I think so many young people regardless of gender are paying more attention, and they’re saying ‘That’s how you win.’ Not, ‘That’s how the women’s team wins,’ but ‘That’s how a championship team wins,’” moderator Jackson said, thanking Rapinoe for helping drive this change.

On coming out and LGBTQ+ rights

Beyond equal pay, Rapinoe uses her platform to push LGBTQ+ issues into mainstream conversations. Pivoting the discussion, moderator DeLorenzo, a senior majoring in neuroscience, asked Rapinoe to discuss what coming out was like for her.

Rapinoe explained that it was “a really positive experience” that allowed her to live more openly. While she had been out in her private life since realizing she was gay in college, Rapinoe shared that she didn’t come out publicly until 2012, just weeks before the Summer Olympics in London. This created space for her to advocate for issues such as gay marriage, which wasn’t legal in the U.S. at the time.

“I felt in a big way I was coming out for sort of this bigger purpose,” Rapinoe said. “Until we don’t have any discrimination, or whatever it may be, then I think it’s still important for people to be counted and stand up and say who they are.” Rapinoe shared that her spotlight brings this conversation into every room she enters, which she uses to break down stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community and normalize the issue. She and her wife, Sue Bird, a professional women’s basketball player on the Seattle Storm team, married in 2017 and are very public about their life together.

Winning the World Cup

This past summer, in the “biggest moment” of her career, Rapinoe scored six goals, won both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards, became a two-time World Cup champion, and was named the 2019 FIFA player of the year.

Amidst the craziness, Rapinoe said she tried to “just enjoy it and realize that this will be one of [her] favorite memories for the rest of [her] life.” Rapinoe got to share the win alongside her team of “powerful, confident women.”

“Usually when a woman is elite in her field, she’s there by herself, or maybe with one or two others. But we have this incredible team structure. There’s 23 of the very elite women in their sport in this country,” Rapinoe said.

UM community takeaways

Reaching capacity, the Shalala ballrooms were packed with approximately 700 people in attendance. Among them students, faculty and administrators jumped at the opportunity to hear Rapinoe speak. Students began lining up almost two hours before the event to ensure they had a seat.

Before a filled crowd, world champion Megan Rapinoe answers questions submitted by students during the event. Photo credit: Jared Lennon

Sophomore Luchia Yannuzzi, a marine science and biology double major, said she could hardly believe it when she heard Rapinoe was coming to campus. After the event, Yannuzzi, who played soccer in high school and followed the women’s team all summer, said she “wanted to remember everything [Rapinoe] said” during the discussion.

Rapinoe’s message resonated with several female audience members who found her leadership and boldness inspiring. Student Government President Emily Gossett said she thought this was one of the best WMTU events yet.

“She is so relaxed as a speaker but she’s also so personal and willing to open up and talk about her own experiences and give examples,” Gossett said. “I think that’s what students need.”

For student-athlete Abby Schwenger, hearing Rapinoe speak was a source of inspiration.

“I liked the way she talked about athletes using their platforms,” said Schwenger, a sophomore majoring in elementary and exceptional student education. “It would be a loss if someone with as big of a platform as her didn’t use their voice.”

President Julio Frenk, who spoke briefly at the event, said he found much of the discussion “incredibly valuable.” In particular, Frenk said he liked Rapinoe’s emphasis on deriving her confidence from being well-prepared.

“If you’re prepared, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing in front of thousands of people and global television,” Frenk said. “I thought that was so applicable to any part of life and I hope the students listen to that piece.”

Natalia Rovira contributed to the reporting of this story.