Megan Rapinoe: The scary Bear for many Americans?

Dr. Molly Yanity

Sports Journalist & Associate Professor and Chair, Journalism, Quinnipiac University


Twitter: @MollyYanity

Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

When British-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed published her 2004 book “The Cultural Politics of Emotion,” she likely could not comprehend the tidal wave of emotion that would crash upon advanced democratic societies through social media.   

But Ahmed was on to something.   

She presents a popular example from psychological literature about a child and a bear. The child sees the bear and becomes afraid. “It is not that the bear is fearsome, ‘on its own’…. It is fearsome to someone or somebody. So fear is not in the child, let alone the bear, but is a matter of how child and bear come into contact. This contact is shaped by past histories of contact, unavailable in the present, which allow the bear to be apprehended as fearsome,” Ahmed wrote.   

So, how did U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe become the scary bear for so many Americans?   

The answer is sadly simple: Economics and identity politics.    

Rapinoe became the public face of a group of 28 USWNT players to sue US Soccer, the national governing organization, to close the pay gap between the considerably more successful women’s team and men’s team.   

In an open relationship with professional basketball star and Olympian Sue Bird, Rapinoe also became a highly visible LGBTQ activist.  

When the USWNT advanced out of the group stage at the World Cup in France during the summer of 2019, comments recorded earlier in the year went viral as Rapinoe declared – with some colorful language – that she would not accept an invitation to the White House should the team win as she had publicly criticized then-U.S. president Donald Trump.  

In the leadup to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo in early 2021, the USWNT stopped kneeling for the anthem, but collectively took a knee on the field – usually to be joined by the opposing team — prior to the opening whistle to support Black activism on issues such as police violence, voting rights, and more.   

No women’s side has ever won the World Cup and Olympics in successive years, but even with the Olympics delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, expectations ran high. The USWNT went 22-0-1 after the World Cup under new coach Vlatko Andonovski. They strutted into Japan with a 502-minute streak of clean sheets.   

When the Americans promptly got spanked, 3-0 to Sweden, in the first game of group play, soccer fans were shell-shocked. The USWNT emerged from pool play, but fell to Canada in the semifinal match.   

The USWNT beat Australia in the bronze-medal game – a contest in which Rapinoe scored two goals. While the American athletes took solace then pride in their medal, many American citizens expressed glee over Rapinoe’s “failure.”   

The vitriol on social media and the airwaves did not begin with a statement posted to Trump’s website with which he concluded: “The woman with purple hair played terribly and spends too much time thinking about Radical Left politics and not doing her job!” but it amplified from there.   

A popular author tweeted he hoped the USWNT would lose. A right-wing U.S. newscaster from Newsmax claimed he “took pleasure” in the team’s defeat and “Megan Rapinoe and her merry band of America-hating female soccer players… a collection of whiny overpaid social justice warriors are very hard to root for.”  

Comedian K-von, host of the podcast “The Right Show,” spent days during the Olympic soccer tournament to drub Rapinoe, who he dubbed “RapinHo” and “Karen Kaepernick,” on Facebook. One of his followers commented that Rapinoe was like “a new STD… Nobody wants her, people are stuck with her, and sadly we have no vaccines for her….”   

Resentment, anger, and hatred color the language of modern American political discourse.   

Anger can be politically productive, though the uptake of anger for democratic purposes is typically achieved by a member of a privileged group.  But, resentment and hatred are dangerous in democracies. Resentment is an emotion that seethes and scapegoats. Hate comes from disgust, which requires a patrolling of social norms and ultimately undermines productive public discourse. 

Rapinoe checks all the boxes when it comes to the politics of emotion; She is financially well off, but seeks more. She is politically-outspoken lesbian with a successful, attractive fiancée. She dives full force into issues of race and social justice and has the audience to influence. 

Like the bear, Rapinoe strikes fear. As irrational as it may be – and emotions can be, after all, not rational – the purple-haired fire brand with the wicked bend makes a group of Americans feel vulnerable. (If she gets more, they must reason, they get less, maybe?) 

Another group of Americans resents and hates her in a manner exclusive to Rapinoe among 2020 Olympians. Nothing productive that comes from that.