Megan Rapinoe
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A few months ago, I wrote that Barack Obama’s most important speech was the one he gave at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. He used the occasion to answer critics by defining what it means to be patriotic.

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?…

It’s the idea held by generations of citizens who believed that America is a constant work in progress; who believed that loving this country requires more than singing its praises or avoiding uncomfortable truths.  It requires the occasional disruption, the willingness to speak out for what is right, to shake up the status quo.  That’s America.

As we celebrate the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team winning the World Cup for the fourth time, co-captain Megan Rapinoe, the first athlete outside of the NFL who took a knee to protest police brutality, is being similarly charged as unpatriotic.

It all started when Donald Trump heard that she wasn’t interested in going to the White House if the team won the World Cup. The president tweeted:

I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer, but Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job!…Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team. Be proud of the Flag that you wear. The USA is doing GREAT!

Last week, Rapinoe responded in a way that echoed Obama.

I’m particularly and uniquely and very deeply American. If we want to talk about the ideals we stand for, the song and the anthem and what we are founded on, I think I am extremely American. For the detractors, I would have them look hard into what I am actually saying, the actions I am doing. Maybe you don’t agree with every single way I do it, and that can be discussed. I know I am not perfect. Looking at the country honestly and saying, yes, we are a great country and there are many things that are so amazing and I feel very fortunate to be in this country. I would never be able to do this in a lot of places. But also: that doesn’t mean that we can’t get better. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t always strive to be better. This country was founded on a lot of good ideals, but it was also founded on slavery. We just need to be really honest about that and be really open about talking about that . . . so we can reconcile that and hopefully move forward and make this country better for everyone.

It is important to recognize that Rapinoe and her teammates represent the story of America that threatens Trump’s base of nostalgia voters.

Here is how Franklin Foer describes them.

[T]his team is a reminder of the best of the American ethos—the promise of ever-expanding equality, the spirit of reform that yielded Title IX and laid the basis for American female soccer supremacy, the carnival of individuality that is the team’s roster. At a time of despair, the players represent a form of not-so-utopian hope: how a community of different backgrounds and sexual orientations relates to one another with familiar affection. A lesbian activist who protests police brutality has become a national hero. Draped in the Stars and Stripes, this team demonstrates how civic patriotism has an equal claim to representing the country.

Rapinoe epitomizes a confidence and pride that inspires us as well.

Sue Bird, Rapinoe’s partner describes where that comes from.

But then Megan, man….. I’ll tell you what. You just cannot shake that girl. She’s going to do her thing, at her own damn speed, to her own damn rhythm, and she’s going to apologize to exactly NO ONE for it. So when all the Trump business started to go down last week, I mean — the fact that Megan just seemed completely unfazed? It’s strange to say, but that was probably the only normal thing about it. It’s not an act with her. It’s not a deflection. To me it’s more just like: Megan is at the boss level in the video game of knowing herself. She’s always been confident….. but that doesn’t mean she’s always been immune. She’s as sensitive as anyone — maybe more!! She’s just figured out how to harness that sensitivity.

And I think Megan’s sensitivity is what drives her to fight for others. I think it’s what drove her to take a knee. The Megan you’re seeing at this World Cup? It’s an even stronger version of the one who knelt in the first place. All the threats, all the criticism, all the fallout — coming out on the other side of that is what now makes her seem so unfazed by the assholes of the world.

I think in trying to help others, Megan has cemented who she is.

Being “at the boss level in the video game of knowing herself” might be one of the most adept uses of a timely culture reference that I’ve heard in a long time. Think for a moment about what Bird is saying: being sensitive to others’ pain and harnessing that sensitivity to engage in the fight brings a backlash of criticism and threats. Learning how to handle that pressure can cement a knowledge of self that allows us to be “unfazed by the assholes of the world.”

Megan Rapinoe is sure to trigger those who are threatened by what Rebecca Traister called this “excruciating period of change” represented by “the slow expansion of possibility for figures who have long existed on the margins.” But she is also a patriot in the truest sense of what that word means.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.