The American’s continued fight for equality – and famously squaring up to US President Donald Trump – had some casting her in the same light as Muhammad Ali, Billie Jean King and Colin Kaepernick, athletes who put their careers at risk when taking a stand on off-field matters.
“Megan Rapinoe is now a household name,” former New Zealand captain Bex Smith told CNN’s Amanda Davies as she reflected on the year in women’s football. “Not just in sports.”
The openly gay Rapinoe has, for example, long championed gay rights and been a central figure in the US team’s ongoing battle with its federation for equal pay with the less successful men’s side.
“She’s a massive social activist,” said Smith. “She really believes in changing the 10 meters around us. If we can look at those 10 meters and do our part to change as much as we can in our own backyard then the world will be a better place.
“And she’s always been talking like that. So it’s just really nice to be able to see someone like that who is a genuine character who really wants to make a difference in the world has been given a platform that she can inspire the people to do the same.
“I think she’s always felt comfortable embracing the fact that she is a social activist that she wants to make change, she’s always been very open about her own sexuality, about who she is, what she believes in,” continued Smith. “And so now, being able to do that on the world stage, is kind of just very natural for her.
“I think what she is doing is setting a precedent for other players to be able to speak their mind, speak the truth and be really true to who they are which I hope will permeate into the men’s game.”
Calls out magazine
Rapinoe was on a big New York stage collecting her award for Sportsperson of the Year from highly respected US magazine Sports Illustrated recently but didn’t shy away from what she felt was the publication’s bias.
Rapinoe was just the fourth woman to collect the gong – not as part of a team or sharing the award with another athlete – following tennis greats Serena Williams and Chris Evert and middle-distance runner Mary Decker.
“Is it true that I am the fourth woman deserving of this award?” she asked the audience. “I don’t think so.
“Is it true that so few writers of color deserve to be featured in this publication? No. Is it true that so few women’s voices deserve to be heard and deserve to be read in this publication? I don’t think so.”
Unstoppable on the pitch
The speedy winger sparkled for the US during the World Cup in France. She co-led the tournament in scoring with six goals – alongside teammate Alex Morgan and England’s Ellen White – while chipping in three assists.
Along with collecting the World Cup’s Golden Boot, Rapinoe was later named FIFA women’s player of the year and the women’s Ballon d’Or winner by France Football magazine.
“She’s an incredible football player,” said Smith. “We can’t deny the fact that she won the Ballon d’Or. There was a lot of talk whether she should have won it or not as being the best player but she’s certainly the best character and she deserves to be one of the top-ranked players in the world.”
The World Cup was considered a huge hit, watched by more than one billion people across all platforms, according to the FIFA.
And numbers released by the world governing body revealed 263 million people tuned into the final between the US and Netherlands, a record for a women’s World Cup game.
Rapinoe is expected to feature for the US next year at the Tokyo Olympics, and Smith said the longer she is around the better for the game.
“I think that any major sport that has seen massive growth always needs a strong character, we need a strong protagonist,” Smith said.
“She is one of them certainly. The only thing I would add to that is that there are actually so many other players around the globe and not just players, but coaches and others behind the scenes working in the game that are just as incredible as her in a different way, and I’d love to see some of those women and men get a little more of the coverage and platform they deserve.”