Megan Rapinoe Discusses Transgender Sports Bans, Title IX

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Title IX, the federal legislation mandating equal opportunities for men’s and women’s participation in sports, turns 50 on June 23. The golden anniversary offers opportunities to recognize the advancements of women’s athletics, such as the pioneering collective bargaining agreement, agreed to on May 18 by the United States Soccer Federation, the U.S Women’s National Team Players Association and the United States National Soccer Team Players Association, that creates true pay equity in the sport. Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan were the top goal scorers for America during the 2019 World Cup. They had been advocates for equal pay for years, even going as far as to sue US Soccer in the same case for gender discrimination.

Despite the fact that female athletes are making great strides, there is still a lot of inequality in sport. TIME caught Rapinoe up to talk about Title IX, how it can be improved and what leadership lessons were learned from the Equal Pay fight.

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This interview was condensed to make it more concise and easier for you.

What does Title IX really mean?

Oh, goodness. Title IX allowed me to play college soccer and receive a scholarship. I don’t think I even knew about it until probably I got to college, or a little bit after. It wasn’t in my consciousness. That’s kind of the amazing thing about my generation is, we didn’t have to think about it. It just was there.

It’s not just the elite that is important. How many women are able to attend college and participate in a sporting activity? It’s possible to go to college, to receive a scholarship, and not have to take on student debt. What’s the impact of that in the workplace and thought leadership in business and, every aspect of life? Multiple generations of women, for the first time, we’re able to have these opportunities and break out of the extremely restrictive roles that we had been assigned to for so long. The impact of this initiative is immense. It is not just about this country. It was a transformative piece of legislation.

Which are your thoughts on Title IX’s weaknesses? And how can we correct them?

The holes are probably reflections of the problems in our society. I’m sure there’s a racial blind spot. I’m sure there’s an LGBTQ blind spot. I’m sure there’s an immigrant blind spot, all of that. Title IX has also been charged with dealing with sexual assault and/or rape at college campuses. This is a problem that continues to be widespread and not being reported. And even when it is reported, it’s so difficult to get anything done.

An amicus brief was signed by you and 500 other female athletes in support Roe v. Wade. The brief stated that Roe was crucial for Title IX’s effectiveness, because it allowed many women to choose sports. Is Roe being overturned because of a Supreme Court leak?

Completely. I think it’s terrifying to be honest. I don’t think anything is safe. I don’t see why it would ever be. It’s not possible. [the Court]The voting rights act was struck down. We are crazy! So we’re potentially on the verge of striking down Roe v. Wade. I mean, I don’t think that this Republican Party will stop at anything. This is why we must be alert. It is really sad that 50 years on from Title IX, and that so far on from Roe v. Wade, we’re bringing up not just settled law, but a settled desire and progression that the majority of the country really wants. It isn’t the will of most people.

Where do you think women’s sports is going in the next 50 years?

I’m, by nature, hugely optimistic. I think that there’s enough going on right now, we can look at our lawsuit, the success of our team, look at the WNBA, we can look at a million different places and see that progress is really taking hold. And it’s not just because, oh, it’s the right thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do for your ROI. I think that the we are at the bottom of a hockey stick of growth in women’s sports.

One of the trappings that’s really easy to fall into for women’s sports is trying to mirror and mimic every single thing that men’s sports has done. I don’t think that’s the goal. It’s different, right? And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same. We don’t have to use every single thing that men’s sports has done, because frankly, not all of it has worked. We should use the benefit of hindsight, and we should understand what’s good to take, and where can we innovate, where can we move forward. It’s going be difficult in a lot of ways for men’s sports to be as nimble as women’s sports, even though we don’t have a fraction of the money or the budget or the influence or the power. We can be nimble and we can be really innovative and we can go into new frontiers probably a lot quicker than men’s sports can. I don’t think my imagination can even capture what’s possible with women’s sports in the next 50 years.

Where can women’s sports innovate?

Something that is just woven into the fabric of women’s sports is that sort of cross section between sports and doing good to change the world. How can sports be used to promote equality and education not only in America but also in other countries around the globe, such as developing nations? Women’s sports has a leg up on everyone. It is a profitable business model that has many benefits, but we have the ability to use it in countless ways to improve the world.

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Right before this 50th anniversary of Title IX, US Soccer, the women’s national team and the men’s national team agreed to a historic Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that insures true equal pay: the women and men will split FIFA’s pot of World Cup prize money evenly. Which leadership lessons have you learned in the prolonged fight for equal pay?

Girl. Don’t even get me started. I learned that just because you’re the “leader”—and I think this can be in business or whether you’re the CEO or the captain or whatever—don’t think you know everything. Your contribution is vast. And you bring probably a very special talent, and maybe a talent that is more glorified in society—not necessarily more important— and that’s maybe why you’re at the top. But the best leaders know how to say, I don’t know. You must be able to communicate effectively and can delegate. The most important thing is to give people space to be who they are and their talents. Becky Sauerbrunn won’t talk down on anyone in the group, even if they are the loudest. She won’t ever talk louder that me. But that doesn’t mean that I should be speaking. She’s smarter than me in a lot of different ways. And I need to understand, as a leader and as someone who does have a loud voice, I need to recognize I don’t know everything and create that space for Becky.

Do you worry about US Soccer fulfilling its promise under the CBA? You’ve been fighting the federation for so long, it would be human nature to be skeptical.

I can’t hold every single grudge that I have. That’s not right. And that’s also not how progress is made. And that’s not what’s going to be best for the next generation. Contrary to what people think, I’m not that combative. I don’t like conflict. It took a lot energy, time and emotional energy. And that’s not the goal, just to keep fighting. I’d rather keep growing.

This is day one of not only a new contract that means a lot to all of us, but it’s a new relationship. To build this together, both sides must be open-minded and willing to share their hearts and vulnerabilities. We can all move forward, even though there was much contention and pain. It is time to start the healing process. What I’ve always said about this relationship, is that we’re wasting our f-cking time and we’re wasting our f-cking money. We and them. Why don’t we do this together in a way that is fair and equal? You will need to give them more than what you were used to. But ultimately we’re all going to be better for it. It will bring in more revenue for everyone. All of us will make the sport more viable and healthy if we all stop fighting.

What do you think is the biggest shortcoming you’ve had as a leader and how have you tried to work on that?

My thinking and analysis are not always sharp and I don’t have the time to do everything as fast as I would like. Sometimes I want to wriggle out of being uncomfortable, and so you can just make quick decisions, when it’s better to sit in it. The art of picking the right moment to make use of your cudgel pink hair is an area that I believe can be cultivated.

Has there been an example where you weren’t as slow as you needed to be?

It’s no secret that [former US coach] Jill [Ellis]It was a moment of tension for me. I don’t really like swallowing pills, right? It’s definitely necessary. And I think there were times I didn’t and it was not appropriate, whether that’s talking back or having a certain attitude or having a chip on my shoulder.

How did the World Cup 2019 go? Did you have to learn any leadership lessons while trying to guide the US team to victory as one of its co-captains when the President of the United States attacked you on Twitter.

It was obviously not comfortable in that situation. I don’t think [Donald]Trump is an extremely serious man. He was a serious man. I was among many of his women. It was important for me to not let my fear, anxiety or doubts get out of control. It was funny in the team, so it wasn’t really funny. It was like bro, this is the president tweeting at us, how on Earth? And I’m like, I know, this is insane. So that ability to almost like dissociate from the reality that the President United States is trying to dunk on his own citizen and a player that’s trying to win the World Cup, and just being able to shoulder a lot of that myself. We chose to sue Federation. All the pressure is on us. I’ve like dyed my hair pink. He’s trying to make fun of us. This could lead to teams being disqualified. Your chances of winning a World Cup could be ruined. It’s possible to make fun of the situation, while also allowing for a relaxed team. This felt like winning the World Cup. It’s normal to feel that way, but it is important for us to have a good time and laugh. Our goals must be celebrated. Enjoy yourself. I think we all did a really good job of preparing the team and shielding the team from what they didn’t need to deal with.

What’s been the biggest challenge in your role advocating for LGBTQ rights?

When I finally figured this out, it was incredible. I’m gay and my whole life makes sense now. Long time I was the only one out. And so just being the only spokesperson and making sure I’m setting the right example, saying the right things, whether it comes to gay marriage or difficult and nuanced topics like trans inclusion in sports. These are some of the difficulties that come with continuing education. I am not just speaking for me, I’m speaking for a lot of people. I don’t want to make anything weird. You can’t say it all. Speak clearly. And I’m gonna speak it loudly, and I think that that helps other people who maybe don’t have the ability to do that, or who aren’t in a place to do that quite yet.

Learn more TIME’s Athlete Of The Year: US Women’s Soccer Team

Your question related to transgender inclusion and sports. This is an important topic as several states have recently passed legislation that prohibits or limits transgender athletes from participating in certain sports. What is your position on the issue?

I’m 100% supportive of trans inclusion. It is not something that many people know much about. We’re missing almost everything. Frankly, I think what a lot of people know is versions of the right’s talking points because they’re very loud. They’re very consistent, and they’re relentless.

There is regulation at the highest levels. Regulated sports include collegiate. There is also regulation at professional and Olympic level. It’s not like it’s a free-for-all where everyone’s just doing whatever.

People need to realize that sport isn’t the only thing important in their lives. It is important to live a full life. Trans inclusion arguments have been filtered through the very small lens of elite sports. That isn’t the right way to frame this question. We’re talking about kids. We’re talking about people’s lives. We’re talking about the entire state government coming down on one child in some states, three children in some states. They are committing suicide, because they are being told that they’re gross and different and evil and sinful and they can’t play sports with their friends that they grew up with. It’s also a way to eliminate health care. I think it’s monstrous.

I would also encourage everyone out there who is afraid someone’s going to have an unfair advantage over their kid to really take a step back and think what are we actually talking about here. We’re talking about people’s lives. I’m sorry, your kid’s high school volleyball team just isn’t that important. It’s not more important than any one kid’s life.

Show me the evidence that trans women are taking everyone’s scholarships, are dominating in every sport, are winning every title. I’m sorry, it’s just not happening. We must start with inclusion. It will all come together, and I am confident that it can be done. But we can’t start at the opposite. It is just cruel. And frankly, it’s just disgusting.

So, we need to really kind of take a step back and get a grip on what we’re really talking about here because people’s lives are at risk. Kids’ lives are at risk with the rates of suicide, the rates of depression and negative mental health and drug abuse. We’re putting everything through GA trans person cannot be a successful athlete in sport. You can take control of reality by taking a step back.

You’re on the roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Women’s championship, a key qualifier for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics. What is your current view of your role? Are you more like a mentor to the veterans? Do you want to still be the main point of offense and score lots of goals?

Well, I certainly hope my role has changed because I don’t think I’m going to be able to play 90 minutes, six or seven games in a row in a World Cup. It’s most certainly changed, and that’s something I’m honestly really excited about. Just from the soccer perspective, it seems that I still feel like I have so much to give. What if I can give all that I did in the World Cup? No, I don’t think that’s possible. Unless there’s some sort of miracle that happens.

However, I am still able to give back on the field as well as in my mentorship role. It’s not like I can’t play soccer anymore. When it comes down to me, and when it involves aging athletes, I believe people may have a shorter memory. All you have to do is keep your foot on the gas. And I think I’ve earned a little bit of grace.

The last games at the Tokyo Olympics this summer felt like a song, for both you and other veteran athletes. Do you still have desire to play in next year’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics? Is everyone interested in this cycle of the World Cup and 2024 Olympics?

I think I’m all in on this next World Cup. I’ve probably played my last Olympics. It feels like quite a lot, considering the small roster. That’s a difficult cycle. Two years ago, you can see that other players have a better chance of success than I.

I’ve had injuries this year. This kept me away for awhile. It feels like a fresh dawn, a new day.

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