(To receive weekly emails of conversations with the world’s top CEOs and business decisionmakers, click here.)
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. Players like Megan Rapinoe, who along with teammate Alex Morgan was the leading goal-scorer for the United States during its 2019 World Cup championship run, had long advocated for equal pay, going so far to sue their employer, US Soccer, that year in a gender discrimination case.
While female athletes have enjoyed great gains, inequalities do persist in sports. TIME caught up with Rapinoe to discuss how Title IX can be improved, the leadership lessons that came out of the equal pay fight, and the importance of transgender inclusion in sports.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What does Title IX mean to you?
Oh, goodness. I mean, Title IX gave me the opportunity to play soccer in college and get 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 was just there for us.
Take the elite aspect out of it, how many women that have just been able to go to college and play a sport? To go to college and to get a scholarship and to not be saddled with 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. So the impact is immeasurable. I think not only in this country, but around the world. It was a transformational piece of legislation.
What do you think the shortcomings of Title IX have been, and how do we fix them?
I think the holes probably mirror the holes in 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 is also charged with handling sexual assault and rape on college campuses. We know that that is continuing to be rampant and underreported. And even when it is reported, it’s so difficult to get anything done.
You and more than 500 female athletes signed an amicus brief in support of Roe v. Wade: the brief argued that Roe was essential for the effectiveness of Title IX, as choice offered many women the opportunity to pursue sports. Is it a sort of cruel irony that on the 50th anniversary of Title IX, a leaked Supreme Court opinion indicated that Roe may be overturned?
Completely. I think it’s terrifying to be honest. I don’t think anything is safe. Why would it ever? I mean, [the Court] struck down the voting rights act. Are we insane? 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. We absolutely need to be vigilant. 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. This is not the will of the majority of the people, by any means at all.
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. When we think about, not just in America, but other places in the world, developing nations, how can we use sports to spur education, equality? Women’s sports has a leg up on everyone. While having it be a very successful business model, we can use sports to change the world in so many ways.
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. What leadership lessons did you learn during the protracted 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. You bring a lot. 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. Know how to delegate and know how to not only get the most out of themselves, but try to get the most out of everyone else. Allowing people the space to be themselves and bring their special talent to the table is the most important thing. Even within the team, if just the loudest people in the room are talking, Becky Sauerbrunn is not going to talk over them. She will never talk louder than 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.
Are you worried about US Soccer delivering on the promise of 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. And it took up a lot of energy and a lot of time, a lot of 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. And that requires both parties to show up with an open mind and an open heart and vulnerability to build that together. So that we can move forward because there was a lot of contention and pain. The healing has to begin. 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. Them and us. Why don’t we do this together in a way that is fair and equal? Yes, you will have to pay them a lot more money than you used to. But ultimately we’re all going to be better for it. We will all make more money for it. We will all grow the sport in a much more healthy and vibrant way moving forward than we ever would if we just continue to fight.
What do you think is the biggest shortcoming you’ve had as a leader and how have you tried to work on that?
I am not always as thoughtful and analytical and slow as I need to be. 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. Picking and choosing those right moments to use the cudgel of pink hair, I think is a growth area, for sure.
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] and I had a little bit of tension. 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.
What leadership lessons did you learn during the 2019 World Cup, when, while you were attempting to lead the US team to the title as one of the co-captains, the President of the United States was attacking you on Twitter?
In that instance, obviously it was not that comfortable. I don’t think [Donald] Trump is a serious person. I was one of many women that he went after. But I think it was really important to keep my anxiety or fear or uncertainty that I had around that to myself. And so outwardly, it was kind of a funny joke within the team. Like, bro, the f-cking president is tweeting at you, what 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 decided to sue the Federation. We have all the pressure on us in the world. I’ve like dyed my hair pink. The President is trying to dunk on us. This could wreck teams. This could completely fold your chances at a World Cup. So I think that ability to kind of make a joke out of it, but also allow the team to be relaxed. It felt like a must win World Cup. I know we feel all that, but we have to laugh. We have to celebrate our goals. We have to enjoy ourselves. 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?
Once I figured it out, I was like: Oh, this is awesome. I’m gay and my whole life makes sense now. For a long time, I was the only player that was 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. Those are the challenges of just continuing to stay educated. I am not just speaking for me, I’m speaking for a lot of people. I don’t want to make anything weird. Nothing goes unsaid. Speak it plainly. 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.
You mentioned the issue of transgender inclusion in sports, which is such a hot subject right now, as many states have passed bills that ban or limit transgender sports participation. Where do you stand on this issue?
I’m 100% supportive of trans inclusion. People do not know very much about it. 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.
At the highest level, there is regulation. In collegiate sports, there is regulation. And at the Olympic and professional level. It’s not like it’s a free-for-all where everyone’s just doing whatever.
And I think people also need to understand that sports is not the most important thing in life, right? Life is the most important thing in life. And so much of this trans inclusion argument has been put through the extremely tiny lens of elite sports. Like that is not the way that we need to be framing 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. Not to mention trying to take away 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. So we need to start from inclusion, period. And as things arise, I have confidence that we can figure it out. But we can’t start at the opposite. That is 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 God forbid a trans person be successful in sports. Get a grip on reality and take 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. How do you view your role now? So do you see yourself as more of the veteran mentor? Or do you still want to be the focal point of the offense, scoring 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. I think that, just from a soccer perspective, I think I still have a lot to give. Can I give everything that I gave in the last World Cup? No, I don’t think that’s possible. Unless there’s some sort of miracle that happens.
But I can still give a lot on the field and particularly in the mentorship role. It’s not like I can’t play soccer anymore. I think people have a little bit of a short memory when it comes to me and when it comes to aging athletes. Everyone just needs to pump the brakes. And I think I’ve earned a little bit of grace.
At the Tokyo Olympics last summer, those last few games had the feel of a swan-song for you and some of the other veterans. Do you still have desire to play in next year’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics? Are you all in on this cycle?
I think I’m all in on this next World Cup. I’ve probably played my last Olympics. With the smaller roster, that feels like a lot. That’s a difficult cycle. You go two years back-to-back and I think other players are going to be in a much better position to be successful than I would.
I’ve had injuries this year. That kept me out for a while. But it feels like a new dawn and a new day.
More Must-Read Stories From TIME