“I don’t need the US Soccer, or the FIFA president, or a bunch of Hollywood stars to like me to know I am right.”
Never a particular sports-fan, the success of the US Women’s soccer team last year nevertheless kind of got me interested. Not so much in soccer, but rather in the conversation about pay equality they had started and managed to rally forward very visibly in the media. Particularly the feisty captain Megan Rapinoe was everywhere last year, so a book was only a matter of time. It was released a couple of weeks ago, and herewith my thoughts.
I don’t really read athletes’ memoirs, so don’t have much to compare One Life to. I suppose it’s a standard procedure to reminisce a bit on childhood and how the career developed from there on, with musings on all kinds of challenges and then going through, in excruciating detail, the most legendary matches. The latter were the parts that promptly triggered my skim-reading mode, as I do not care about football that much. Rapinoe’s ghost writer was the Guardian journalist Emma Brockes – also a standard procedure for most celebrity biographies.
I already felt I knew a lot about Rapinoe’s life – she has been very forthcoming about her sexuality (and that of her twin sister – in addition also her other sister is bisexual) and her brother’s drug problems. There were not going to be terribly shocking new revelations in the book as she had done so much press following the World Cup win.
There were interesting insights about the trouble Rapinoe caused with her kneeling during the national anthem – not just for herself, but for the management of the team and the association. Clearly such civil disobedience was something that the association had not prepared for, and it resulted in Rapinoe being frozen from multiple games and in her relationship with the coach to go seriously awry.
What was genuinely refreshing was how open Rapinoe was about money – her money. And frankly, she’d have to be, given that it is the very issue that has given her the current platform. She describes how the team was treated on their tournaments abroad – the women were given strict curfews with sanctions for breaking the rules.
“As a rule, the less you earn, the less respectfully you are treated, and vice versa. Think of those NBA guys earning $20 million a year – no-one’s telling them they have a curfew; they’re going to do whatever the fuck they want. With money comes not only popularity and fame, but also the invitation to behave with a certain amount of gusto that’s hard to pull off when you’re lower down the food chain.”
The women’s team was made to share hotel rooms at the Olympics “for team chemistry“.
“Such nonsense. It was part of the infantilising culture that surrounds female athletes, where the coaches have more power than the players.”
Rapinoe breaks down the amounts of money she received from the association as a salary, as well from her sponsorship deals, such as with Nike, just to highlight that the sums are not as astronomical as we are sometime made to believe.
She writes how she bought a gold Rolex as a present to herself following last year’s successes. She lists luxury items she likes to splurge on: moisturisers, clothes, accessories, tech (various Apple products), not forgetting her Celine loafer habit. She mentions that her uncle Brad is her financial adviser. “I think it’s OK to enjoy what I earn.“
Can we pause here.
One of the world’s best male football players, Ronaldo, earned upwards of $100 million just last year. He’s frequently posting pictures on instagram sunning and chillaxing on his various yachts and luxury properties. Ditto the NBA-star James LeBron. They definitely seem to think it absolutely fine to enjoy what they earn.
Male athletes make public appearances (or made, when it was still a done thing) dripping with diamonds and all kinds of opulent ornaments. Ronaldo shared his purchase of Rolex GMT-Master II Ice, a steal at $500,000 on his IG account and no-one bats an eyelid (you will appreciate the fact that it is exactly the same amount of money Rapinoe earned in 2018). Rapinoe has justified her splurging on a gold Rolex in several publications already.
As for having an Uncle Brad advising the Ronaldos of the world on their finances? Ha. The multi-hyphenated asset management firms are bloody bending over backwards to get their hands on the hundreds of millions of dollars that top male athletes earn.
It’s utter brilliance to read the world’s best female soccer player make a point that she doesn’t have to feel guilty for buying moisturisers, jewellery and a couple pairs of shoes (N.B. she does mention investing in property as well).
So yes, the US Women’s soccer team’s demands for equal pay are not based on nothing. At the moment it’s not looking good. This spring the federation declined to settle, instead stating that “the physical differences between men and women meant that not only did women have less “ability”, “skill”, “speed” and “strength” than the men, but that being a male player “carries more responsibility within US Soccer” than the women’s team does.”
Rapinoe is currently riding out the pandemic in Connecticut, splitting her time between working out and engaging with activists and politicians. With Tokyo olympics being maybe indefinitely postponed, who knows whether she’ll ever return to professional soccer. A cautious personal guess is that she’ll be a much sought-after speaker and political influencer in the years to come.
And what is her explanation to why the US Women’s team is so good?
“I’ve won plenty and lost plenty. The difference is that we truly believe we’re going to win, in every single game, no matter how the game is going or at what stage it’s in. In a country of 330 million people, only 23 women get to make a living the way we do, and you need to be a gladiator just to get on the team. You’re in the cauldron every day. We train to win, and we play to win, and every second of play we’re relentless. (…) Not all teams think this way, and it’s the difference between winning and losing.“