By Wilson Dizard
After declaring they wouldn’t attend a White House reception, the World Cup-winning US women’s football team became the latest in a string of sports heroes declining to be seen alongside Trump.
The United States women’s football team, the back-to-back winners of the Women’s World Cup, will be greeted Wednesday in New York City with a ticker-tape parade after defeating the Netherlands 2-0 on Sunday in Paris in the tournament’s final. It is the fourth time the US has won the cup since the games began in 1991.
However, the usually uncontroversial American custom of victorious major league sports teams visiting the White House, along with the occasional celebrity guest, has been turned into weeks-long news events under US President Donald Trump.
Some players across a host of teams have refused to take ‘grip and grin’ photographs with Trump in the presidential mansion, and some have been turned into grotesque stunts involving feasts of fast food for college football champs.
The White House visit has become a vortex of controversy, forcing US athletes to decide whether they will stand by Trump’s side. The US women’s football team is no exception and has decided which side they are on. As have dozens of other US teams and players, while others were happy to attend.
While decisions by hockey, baseball and American football players to spurn, tolerate or embrace an audience with the president make headlines in the US, the opinions of these players rarely resonate across the Atlantic or Pacific. Without setting out to do so, US women’s World Cup team was able to broadcast a message of defiance against Trump through the international language of ‘soccer’, as the team members call it.
And the American team is not alone in using the global spotlight of professional sports to push back at the retreat of democracy. In Trump’s case, it was particularly fitting that the rebuke came from a multiethnic squad of American women, who are on the front lines of Trump’s push for Republican policies that would restrict their rights.
Indeed, one of their most talented players, Marie Rapinoe, has been vocal in her condemnation of Trump on behalf of her entire team. “I’m not going to the f*****g White House… We’re not going to be invited,” Rapinoe said on June 25. The video was made months before.
Political expression is not a new aspect of Rapinoe’s career, having stood or kneeled silently during the national anthem since 2016, after former San Francisco 49ers football quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem, sung before kickoff, in protest at police violence against minority communities in the US.
“I haven’t experienced over-policing, racial profiling, police brutality or the sight of a family member’s body lying dead in the street. But I cannot stand idly by while there are people in this country who have had to deal with that kind of heartache,” she wrote at the time.
“There is no perfect way to protest. I know that nothing I do will take away the pain of those families. But I feel in my heart it is right to continue to kneel during the national anthem, and I will do whatever I can to be part of the solution.”
Rapinoe had received Trump’s reproach on Twitter. The scenario seemed to cross some of Trump’s wires, as he had to both balance his reflex to embrace an American national sports team, but also fire back at a private citizen who had disrespected him. Trump imagines this behaviour to be some kind of display of power, but it is, as ever, an own-goal spectacle of his psychological weakness.
“I am a big fan of the American Team, and Women’s Soccer, but Megan should WIN first before she TALKS! Finish the job! We haven’t yet invited Megan or the team, but I am now inviting the TEAM, win or lose. 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!”
Any country whose president is afraid of toddlers and pregnant teenage mothers seeking asylum is not doing “great”. And that is definitely true of a country that sees fit to separate families and lock children in prison.
In the same sense, a country that has locked up dozens of political activists and sentenced them to death is not doing great. That would be Egypt under President Abdel Fatah el Sisi, who has a somewhat strained relationship with Egypt’s top football star, Mohammed Salah. The Liverpool player, who lead his team to victory this year, has gotten under Sisi’s thin skin simply by being a popular figure in Egypt.
As Sam Hamad explained last September: “When Salah received an astonishing one million unofficial votes during the last presidential non-election, he instantly became a point of dissent against Sisi – an organic, if symbolic, rival to the tyrant who did everything in his power to stamp out any genuine political rivals.”
Salah received these votes despite not showing any desire to hold elected office. What drew him rebuke from Sisi’s allies was his understandable complaints about the treatment of the Egyptian national team in the run-up to the 2018 World Cup.
Authoritarians are hypersensitive to criticism, as they see their relationship with the public as a zero sum game. When the public wins, they lose. When they lose, the public wins. There is no chance for a draw.
Both Trump and Sisi think of political life in terms of loyalty or “treason”. That means anybody in their orbit has to fall in one category or another. That compels public figures, sometimes athletes, to let the public know where they stand.
Sports has always been politics by another means. Indeed, the periodically held Olympic games of ancient Greece were a time when city-states paused their bloody rivalries for the sake of a pan-Hellenic festival. War is politics just as much as peace is politics. International sports organisations of all types are supposed to be the inheritors of that tradition, serving forums for the non-violent expression of human ability.
Sometimes, for some athletes, that ability is also in expressing their political beliefs. Mohammed Ali, the American boxing champ, left a legacy of pitch-perfect quotations that cut to the core of the crucial moral issues of his time. There’s a reason his picture hangs in gyms and cafeterias in Istanbul, and elsewhere around the world. It is because he continues to inspire. Salah and Rapinoe will too.
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