Last Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team (USWNT) was knocked out of the Women’s World Cup, losing on penalties to Sweden in the round of 16. The result was an extremely disappointing finish for the historically dominant U.S. women’s soccer program, which has grown used to a high level of success, winning the last two World Cups.
Soccer fans across the country were left feeling let down by the team’s uninspired performance. However, one particular group of Americans took tremendous pleasure in seeing their country fail at the beautiful game: conservatives.
Across right-wing media, conservatives were gleeful over the American loss, pinning the blame squarely on what they said was some of the players’ focus on “wokeness.”
“The attitude of the USWNT reflects such poor values it’s sickening. They need an overhaul,” said T.J. Moe, a contributor to conservative outlet The Blaze. “The America-hating, entitled, ungrateful group, led by Megan Rapinoe, needs to go. Quite fitting she’s the one who blew their best chance to win.” (Rapinoe missed a key penalty that could have extended the tie-breaker Sunday.)
The conservative cheers were so numerous, it’s tough to choose just a few as examples. Right-wing troll Benny Johnson rejoiced over Twitter. “Team USA’s downfall was delivered by anti-America, anti-woman activist Megan Rapinoe’s EMBARRASSING free kick here,” he tweeted Sunday. Someone should tell Benny it was a penalty, not a free kick.
That conservatives have picked out U.S. star Megan Rapinoe for jeers has little to do with her capability as a player. The right has long had a grudge with her over an incident four years ago when the team refused an invitation to the White House under Donald Trump’s presidency after winning the 2019 Women’s World Cup. “I’m not going to the fucking White House,” Rapinoe said during an interview before the last World Cup.
Additionally, over the last few years, as a prominent face of the team, Rapinoe has been a vocal supporter of trans rights, particularly voicing approval for trans women playing women’s sports, and speaking out against bills barring trans participation in athletics
“These bills are attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist,” she wrote in a 2021 op-ed for the Washington Post. “Transgender kids want the opportunity to play sports for the same reasons other kids do: to be a part of a team where they feel like they belong. Proponents of these bills argue that they are protecting women. As a woman who has played sports my whole life, I know that the threats to women’s and girls’ sports are lack of funding, resources and media coverage; sexual harassment; and unequal pay.”
Having a high-profile female athlete like Rapinoe consistently pushing back against the conservative obsession with trans people, and particularly one of the issues that has most accelerated the backlash to trans lives—participation in women’s sports—is a big problem for conservatives.
And there’s another simple truth about why conservatives might hate the USWNT. Simply put, the team has several gay players. The aforementioned Rapinoe is in a high-profile relationship with former professional basketball player Sue Bird. Her teammates Kristie Mewis and Kelley O’Hara are also openly gay, according to Autostraddle.
I’m old enough to remember when hardcore homophobic politics of the right were considered the norm, and those days aren’t that far behind us. I don’t believe for a second that the 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell, which made marriage equality the law of the land, made all of that homophobia go away.
We see evidence of that ugly dynamic rearing its head again in recent times through the anti-drag backlash. When conservatives descend on the town library, trying to ban books, many of the books they’re objecting to are about being gay. Through the growing monstrosity of the anti-trans movement, conservatives have allowed old-school homophobia to seep back into public acceptance.
A few years ago, making the claim that drag queens are all pedophiles would rightly get you labelled as a homophobe. Now it just means you’re a pretty standard conservative.
To many conservatives, the team’s acceptance of gay players along with Rapinoe’s support of trans athletes, means that the team doesn’t have a pure enough “culture” to succeed. In the conservative world view, only the industrious and pious are rewarded with success. It’s an inherently Protestant outlook, and one in which conservatives themselves rarely live up to.
Looking at the world this way offers those on the right a way to separate and sort people according to their own personal values. Failing to live up to their standards, by being gay, supporting trans rights, or snubbing the president, means you deserve failure. Your failure is cause for celebration on the right.
Beyond all else, the USWNT represents a threat to the conservative way of life. Right-wingers aren’t particularly interested in strong, independent, self-sufficient women. Their anti-abortion policy alone tells us this. These are all traits of successful athletes and they have little place for women in the world that conservatives are trying to build even now in 2023.
For all of their talk about patriotism, there’s nothing conservatives love more than control over personal lives—and they will run roughshod over anyone standing in their way, even if that means rooting against the red, white and blue in the World Cup.