Photo: Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images
While most of you spent the long weekend grilling, enjoying quality time with your family, and blowing off your fingers with celebratory explosives like normal people, I rewatched O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman’s Oscar-winning ESPN Films eight-hour 2016 documentary about O.J. Simpson, domestic violence, the history of race relations, why no one should ever live in Florida or Las Vegas, and just about everything else that haunts and animates this country. There was a ton to reabsorb in my first rewatch in three years — aside from the sense that the subtext of nearly every piece of popular culture made before November 2016 now feels like it’s about Donald Trump — but to me, the most pivotal part of the film comes in part one, during the civil-rights era. A group of superstar black athletes at the time, from Jim Brown to Bill Russell to then–Lew Alcindor, gathered in Cleveland to discuss Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Vietnam War in what eventually became known as the Ali Summit in Cleveland. The meeting put these men on the front lines of the civil-rights battles. But O.J. Simpson, playing for USC at the time (while Alcindor was at UCLA), refused to take part, rejecting any sense of responsibility or any connection to the movement at all. In the film, it presages everything that happens afterward, the original sin of cowardice and narcissism that leads to his downfall.
What’s telling about the incident, though, is that at the time, Simpson’s reputation and public image didn’t take a hit. It’s only in retrospect, in the excavation of his personal history following the murders, that his absence from the struggles of his contemporaries has been scrutinized. It’s not like Willie Mays, whom Jackie Robinson criticized for not standing up for black players or the movement, has suffered in the public consciousness for it. We all praise Ali and Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (and Hank Aaron, who also noted Mays’s silence, for that matter) for it now, but at the time it caused them nothing but grief; each man suffered for his outspokenness. The calculus Simpson followed set the stage for decades to come, from Michael Jordan to Walter Payton to Tiger Woods to Derek Jeter to, of course, every white athlete who was never expected to even consider a stance on civil rights or American politics: Say nothing, stay out of controversies, get paid. Simpson was driven to say nothing by his own narcissism … but that didn’t make that choice any less wise. It wasn’t just smart to say nothing; it was the default stance.
Which is one of the many, many reasons that the USWNT’s Women’s World Cup victory on Sunday was so deeply thrilling. When your team wins a championship, it is pure, unadulterated joy: Millions of people dream of winning a World Cup, but only these women get to do it. If the members of the USWNT had done nothing but drink shitty flavored vitamin water and monotonously do ad reads for Equifax, it would still have been a monumental, jaw-dropping achievement. But that is, of course, not what they did. Two months before the tournament, the entire team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, citing a “duty to be the role models that we’ve set out to be and fight to what we know we legally deserve.” Star player Megan Rapinoe, who was the first white athlete to kneel during the national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick, said she wouldn’t be “going to the fucking White House” if the team won — a statement her team backed up entirely, from star to scrub — which led the president to predictably lash out at her on Twitter. (She also rightly hammered FIFA for scheduling two men’s cup championships on the same day as the Women’s World Cup final, which is like the NFL playing another game on Super Bowl Sunday.) The team became so synonymous with the issue of equal pay that their fans were chanting it in unison after they clinched their title. Their obligatory congratulatory ad from Nike was less about victory than inspiring a revolution. And celebration of their victory felt like such a rebuke to Trumpism and the America we currently inhabit that a sports bar full of their fans saw Fox News doing a live shot and immediately began screaming, “Fuck Trump.”
It was wonderful to win, because it’s always wonderful to win. But this winning felt different. It felt almost … moral.
One should always be careful of assigning any sort of ethics to one’s sports fandom: No matter how hard you try, you’ll never be fully pure. But the USWNT’s win, and specifically team captain Rapinoe’s winning the Golden Boot and hoisting the trophy in both exhilaration and defiance, felt like the good guys winning during an age when the good guys seem to always be taking it on the chin. Two weeks ago, Trump said Rapinoe should “WIN before she TALKS”; on Sunday, his bluff called, he was backtracking from even inviting the team to the White House. At that exact second, Rapinoe, a gay athlete dominating in a sport in which fans were chanting homophobic slurs at her during the last Olympics, was doing this:
And this is the great part: The victory was sweet because of Rapinoe’s and her teammates’ activism. They spoke up, they stood their ground, they taunted, they danced, they sipped tea, they were joyously defiant from the very beginning. And that’s why they’ll go down in history in a way that even previous Women’s World Cup champions won’t. Previous generations have found activism, or even simply stating your viewpoint on matters of the world, a detriment: Something that got in the way of the game, of winning, of earning, of thriving. But this team and Rapinoe are legends now — and, even better, are role models in a way that athletes actually should be role models, an investment that will only bear more fruit in the decades to come — because they demanded to be heard on the issues they cared about and then went out and kicked everybody’s ass to boot. They will be more beloved, and richer, and more successful, having spoken out than if they hadn’t. Activism was bold, but, more than that, it was also smart. This was so much more fun because of it.
In 20 years, our children will look back at this era — much like my generation looks back at the Vietnam War and the civil-rights era, and the generation before looked back at World War II and Nazi Germany — and want to know how we reacted to it, who stood where, who stood up, who stood silent. Tom Brady is probably the greatest football player of all time — honestly, he’s an ongoing miracle — but for millions of people, his connection to Trump (which is more tenuous than that of his coach, but remains defiantly un-cleared-up by Brady himself) is going to last as long as his accomplishments. His particular style of attempting to be all things to all people, to simply let All the Winning Speak for Itself, feels outdated — irresponsible, even, in an age where LeBron James is calling the president “U bum” on Twitter and the simple act of accepting congratulations from the president has become electrified. The USWNT has been loud and flamboyant and actively charged and activist for years now, and they backed it up with the grandest of all championships. They feel much more of this era. This may be the new normal.
Four years ago, the USWNT became the first-ever women’s team and first ever U.S. soccer team to parade down the Canyon of Heroes. Minutes after Sunday’s game was over, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio invited them to do so again. (Beware, champions: Last time he somehow sneaked onto the float with you.) Back in 2015, it was a feel-good story, that team that we enjoyed so much basking in unadulterated and unquestioning applause. Today, that team, and its star, are flash points in conversations about equal pay, rampant sexism in both American sports and FIFA, and the president of the United States’s repulsive treatment of women and underrepresented groups in equal measure. You can’t talk about the USWNT and its best player without talking about everything happening in this country right now. Isn’t it great? Isn’t it so much better than last time?