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Megan Rapinoe why all the hate?

Since the start of the 2023 World Cup, Samuel Schmidt felt tension rising on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter) each time the United States Women’s National Team took the field.

Some of that agitation, however, wasn’t about the team’s underwhelming performance in the group stage. Instead, it was coming from conservative accounts upset that only a handful of the storied team’s players sang along to the national anthem.

To those users, it was yet more evidence that the players weren’t fit to represent their country because of behavior or political stances conservatives perceive to be anti-American. When World Cup veteran Megan Rapinoe — long a bête noire of the right — missed a critical penalty kick in a do-or-die game against Sweden on Sunday, the pile-on began.

“It almost felt like it was a rubber band that had been spun really tightly and just had let go,” Schmidt, an assistant professor of sport management at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, told Mashable. “It felt like all these people were waiting for this moment, for the United States Women’s National Team to lose, for Rapinoe and others to kind of have a moment of failure…”Numerous conservative politicians and personalities weighed in on X/Twitter, delighting in the team’s loss and Rapinoe’s uncharacteristic miss, while tying the defeat to their politics. Many of them repeated the same slogan: “Go woke, go broke.”

Donald Trump weighed in on the platform Truth Social: “The ‘shocking and totally unexpected’ loss by the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team to Sweden is fully emblematic of what is happening to the [sic] our once great Nation under Crooked Joe Biden,” he wrote. “WOKE EQUALS FAILURE.”

Sports schadenfreude: It’s not new
The jarring glee with which conservatives celebrated the team’s loss — even rejoicing at the sight of Rapinoe’s post-game tears — is part of a known phenomenon in sports, said Schmidt, who studies activism in sports.”In general, we’re going to see athletes that engage in activism, when they do lose, or they don’t win the championship, they are going to be absolutely crucified on social media,” he said.

“In general, we’re going to see athletes that engage in activism, when they do lose, or they don’t win the championship, they are going to be absolutely crucified on social media.”
– Samuel Schmidt, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Yet, something more specific happened in the wake of the team’s loss as conservatives saw an opportunity to tarnish everything Rapinoe and the team stand for by associating it with defeat.

In past research, including a paper on Rapinoe, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and the topic of national anthem protests, Schmidt has observed that some fans, who tend to have conservative values, often want American athletes to not just be patriotic but to embrace nationalism.

This important distinction separates those who feel a blind obedience to their country, insisting on its superiority, from those who ultimately love their country but believe critical analysis of it is justified.

By that measure, the team’s style of patriotism is a direct affront to the nationalism many conservatives demand of athletes.

Still, there are important caveats like gender, which Schmidt said mattered greatly.

In last year’s World Cup, he noted that the U.S. Men’s National Team was widely celebrated when they reached, then lost, their round-of-16 game, even though they’d adopted positions objectionable to the right, like gun violence prevention and, in 2020, a “Be the Change” slogan unveiled in support of Black Lives Matter. If some on the right relished the team’s loss, it wasn’t a memorable trend.

By contrast, the women’s team was ridiculed and belittled by critics over their years-long battle for equal pay, all while winning back-to-back World Cup championships.

Then there’s Rapinoe herself, and what she represents to conservatives.

In 2016, she started kneeling during the anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick. Some on the right reviled her for it. She was an outspoken plaintiff in the team’s equal pay lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation. She’s a queer icon who regularly advocates for LGBTQ+ people and causes, including the inclusion of transgender athletes in professional sports.

Months before decisively leading the team to its fourth World Cup victory, in 2019, Rapinoe described herself as a “walking protest.” During the tournament, Trump attacked Rapinoe for saying the team wouldn’t go to the White House if they prevailed.Ann Pegoraro, a researcher who studies athlete activism, said Rapinoe’s unabashed advocacy on topics like gender and LBGTQ+ equality, trans inclusion, and abortion rights represents everything right-wing conservatives oppose.

“This group wants to go back to ‘There are two genders and in those two genders, women have a certain role,’” said Pegoraro, Lang Chair in Sport Management at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada. “It’s the whole thing of moving women back to, ‘This is your place.’” Shut up and dribble
In addition to gender, as well as race, the political orientation of an activist athlete seems to matter, too, when it comes to schadenfreude in sports. Neither Pegoraro or Schmidt, who’ve collaborated on research, could recall comparable shaming of an openly conservative athlete or team who’d failed on a national or international stage.

Athletes who are patriots instead of nationalists appear to energize right-wing conservatives, who use social media to leverage talking points about an athlete’s performance and to further a political agenda.Yet even as they held their team to the highest standards, they were sure of one thing.

“I will say the criticism of the team, of the players, of the attitude, of what the team represents, like, there’s literally no place for that,” said Press. “This is a team that we are incredibly proud of. This is a team that, win or lose, represents every single one of the best pieces of this country, of the spirit of resilience, of progress, and change and faith and hopefulness.”

Swedish captain Kosovare Asllani, who made a cameo fresh off her team’s triumph over the U.S., drove that point home with a different perspective. Recounting a conversation she had with an American journalist who suggested the country’s team was “over,” Asllani defended her competitors.

“Don’t talk shit about the American team,” she said. “You’re raising the game on every level, on and off the pitch, especially off the pitch…The U.S. National Team are taking so many battles that are opening doors for the rest of the world to do the same.”

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