Life’s Work: An Interview with Megan Rapinoe

The bold and brash captain of the U.S. women’s soccer team cemented her place in sports history with an MVP performance in last year’s World Cup, including spot-on penalty kicks under pressure, even as President Donald Trump tweeted criticisms of her. An outspoken advocate for LGBTQ rights, she’d already allied herself with the racial justice movement by kneeling for the national anthem at games and helped lead her team’s gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation.

HBR: How are you so clutch?

Rapinoe: Some of it is just my natural inclination. I’m a pretty confident person and luckily don’t deal with a lot of anxiety. Also, the team has been so successful for so many years. We’re constantly in the pressure cooker, and there is the expectation of perfection. That’s always our goal. So if you’re a starter on the women’s national team and you’ve made it to the World Cup, you’ve gone through the gantlet. You’re well prepared. And I love big games. Now that I’ve played in front of 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 people, my nightmare is to play in front of 2,500. I see myself as an entertainer as well as an athlete, probably more the former than the latter. So I just revel in those moments: having that huge crowd with all those crazy fans and millions watching on TV, being in the spotlight when so often women in sports are not. That’s an incredible stage to be on. It’s fun.

Not even World Cup penalty shots make you nervous?

If you miss a shot, you missed it. You can’t go back. You can only try to not make the same mistake twice. I’ve won a lot in my career, and I’ve lost a lot. You take the good with the bad. Also, it’s not only about winning. It’s about the process and the journey, the people you’re with, continuing to grow and learn, and getting better every day.

After major setbacks—big losses, injuries—how do you reset and recover?

It’s important to allow yourself to feel in that moment. My first major loss was the 2011 World Cup. We were ahead with two minutes left, but we let in a late goal and lost on penalty kicks. It was devastating. But after you get your ugly cries out in the shower, there’s always another game. We were in the Olympic finals the following year against the same team and won, even though I thought we played better in the World Cup. It’s sports. You don’t always win or have the best performance. And injuries are an occupational hazard. You can dwell and be grumpy or just get on with rehab and find other things to fill your time. We athletes struggle like everybody else. But you can’t take it too seriously. In our sport, losing the World Cup final may be the biggest deal. But in life it’s just one more thing.

How did you grow into your team leader role?

Growing is a great way to describe it. It was a process. When you come on the national team, you’re young, and all these other players have been there for so long—you just try to learn from them. Obviously I had great mentors. Then I was the veteran. I started to realize the power I had in 2016 or 2017. I think I have a particular charisma and trust with my teammates. I made a conscious decision to take on more. I challenged myself to be accountable in a way that I hadn’t before. Professional sports can sometimes feel like Groundhog Day; I’ve been doing the same thing for 10 years. Being more of a leader was a way to expand myself emotionally and intellectually. I’ve always been a team-first player. I’ve never been the best, and I don’t think I am now, but I carry a lot of weight, and if I do that in a positive way, I can have a big impact. I want to win and be successful, but I want everyone else to do it with me, and to do it with them. If a more senior player sets that example—so that we create this environment where everybody feels seen and heard, and confident, and that they have a place—it changes everything.

Tell me about the equity push.

Obviously, certain people like me and Alex Morgan speak publicly, but this has always been a team fight, and it dates back generations. I might get more attention, but other people are the architects of our strategy. We’ve made every single decision with the entire group, which can be difficult at times, with 25 or 30 people on a call or in a room. But if my job is to be the mouthpiece, I’ll do it. And I’m conscious of being the louder one in the way that everybody wants. Trying to gauge that and bring people along is a little bit of a challenge, because we each have our own perspective. But, especially behind closed doors, we do a good job of challenging one another and making sure that when we do talk to the media, we’re always doing so on behalf of the group.

And it’s about not just pay but also other resources, right?

Pay is how we tend to validate people in our society, so that’s the hot-button issue. But you cannot have a meaningful conversation about compensation until you discuss investment in youth programs, medical and high-performance support, marketing and branding, and ticket sales and sponsorships. You can argue that on average, the men have more attendance than the women. But if you have 10 people on sales for them and one person for the women, it’s not a fair comparison. All that—decades of gender discrimination—has to be equaled out.

Why did you join the racial justice protest?

It came very easily to me. I’m an avid reader of the news and watcher of SportsCenter, and I try to keep up on what’s happening in the world. We had just come through an incredibly violent summer, with several high-profile murders of people of color by the police. We already had massive incarceration. Anybody who says this is not happening is willfully blind. So knowing all that, being a gay woman and athlete who understands the importance of allyship, hearing Colin [Kaepernick] speak, I thought, This is something tangible that I can do, as a white athlete, to show support. I haven’t experienced racial injustice or profiling myself, but I don’t have to to believe that others have. So often people shy away when it’s not literally their skin in the game. But it is all the same to me. I honestly thought a lot more athletes would get involved.

How did you deal with the backlash?

It was difficult, not in a “Did I do the right thing?” way—I never wavered on that and feel even more solid in my decision now—but personally. People were very angry about it—really, really, really upset—and the conversation got twisted in so many ways, with critics saying I was leveraging it for myself or unpatriotic. I tried to just weather it. I didn’t get dropped by any sponsors, but I didn’t get any new ones. I didn’t play again for the national team until they made the rule that you had to stand; they’ve denied that was the reason, but it’s obvious. It created such a division. Still, the people who I care about—those close to me, activists, other athletes, Colin, and social justice advocates—were very supportive. And it was a lot less hard than being racially profiled for your whole life, so…

When corporate leaders ask you what they can do to promote inclusivity, what do you tell them?

One thing is to set the environment first, prior to someone being there. For example, I don’t think any NFL owner would say, “We don’t want gay players on our team.” But they don’t seem very welcoming. The environment includes the language you use, the training courses you offer, your hiring practices, who you do business with, what your executive suite looks like. All those things signal to people whether they’re safe or not. The proactivity of people in the majority is really important.

Getting back to team leadership… Your fellow players are stars who’ve been the best at what they do forever. How do you motivate them when they need it?

By cultivating personal relationships. I’m not best friends with every player on the team. I’m closer to some than to others, partly because of age: I’ve got a decade on a lot of them. But I understand each person. Do I need to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t good enough? Or, coming from me, will that crush them? What does the player need? Leadership isn’t about having one style; it’s about being shifty and giving everybody what will make them confident and comfortable so that they can do the thing they’re good at. Obviously, on the national team everybody’s ridiculously good, and they really don’t need any motivation. But if someone is feeling low or not playing, and the coach isn’t helping, then I just meet them where they are, figure out what will get the best out of them, and give it.

What have you learned from your own coaches and fellow players?

The secure, confident, and honest ones are the best. I played for our new national team coach, Vlatko Andonovski, for two years in Seattle. He’s just a chill, down-to-earth guy. He’ll give it to you very straight but also tell you, “Wow, that was amazing.” That’s a good balance. We’re in a high-pressure environment, especially with all this stuff off the field, so a little humor never hurts either. Mark Krikorian, who’s now the head coach at Florida State, is also secure and honest and one of the best coaches I’ve ever had.

You seem very secure yourself—confident, self-aware, authentic. Where does that come from?

Oh, gosh. I do think I was born confident. Also, I almost didn’t grow up in regular society: I’ve always been around all these other superconfident, very successful female athletes, and we allow ourselves space to be however we are. I’ve been very lucky to be on incredible teams that win, which gives you positive feelings. And I get honest feedback from people I really, really love: my mom; my sister; my partner, Sue; and my teammates, who don’t care if I’m famous and give it to me real.

How are you navigating your new beyond-soccer fame?

Without a compass, other than my own take on what is right and wrong. Sometimes a moment culminates in a person or personality, but I understand that it’s not something I did, so I need to be responsible with it and respect it appropriately and understand what an honor it is. I feel that I’m getting to do this really serious and important but also fun and dynamic thing. We’ve been able to leverage what we love—sport and soccer—and use it as a vehicle to help change the world around us. I joke with my teammates about my newfound fame, and it is funny. But I’m trying to do the best I can and get other people to join me. I don’t want to do this alone. That’s never been my style. I understand that I’m a part of something bigger. And again, I don’t take any of it too seriously. I get to play soccer for a living and have this privilege of standing on a platform that so many other people have helped build. I’m no better than anyone else. Everybody works hard, and we’re all in this together.

You’ve talked a lot about your conservative parents and hometown. How did that upbringing affect your career decisions and approach to life?

With my parents I’m like, “Are you sure you’re conservative? I know you’re voting that way, but I think you’re ticking the wrong box.” That’s because I grew up in a really open, loving family. Gender roles were totally equal. My mom was a waitress and worked nights. My dad was a construction worker during the day. And they both did everything: yardwork, housework, cooking, picking us up, driving us everywhere. Once I figured out I was gay, in college, we didn’t talk about it a lot, but the response was never negative. When I came back to Redding [California], everyone was like, “We’re a little unsure about this, but we know you, so that sort of trumps the gay.” I’ve been exposed to more of the world because of soccer, with trips at a young age to Mexico City and Bangkok and European cities and other parts of the United States. So maybe I developed a more expansive worldview. But I’m not ashamed to be from Redding. Excepting white nationalists, I don’t think that people who voted for Trump are bad. I am who I am because of my parents and their friends and the neighbors I grew up with. I’m in them, and they’re in me. We’re working-class. I have family members in the military and a brother who’s addicted to drugs and has had so many issues. And I got the ability to be whoever I wanted to be. I feel uniquely American in that way.

As your soccer career comes to an end, how are you thinking about when you want to retire and your second act?

I’d like to play in another Olympics and World Cup. After that I’ll reassess and see where we’re at and how I’m feeling. I’m never going to be a person who stops playing because I don’t love the game. I still do. And I would never want to cut my career short. But we’ll see.

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