LYON, France — It’s easy to hang a flag outside your house, stand for the national anthem, don the red, white and blue and tell everyone who will listen how much you love your country.
Actual patriotism, active patriotism, is much harder. It requires acknowledging this country’s flaws and holding it accountable until they’re addressed. It means working to achieve that more perfect union our country’s founders envisioned rather than simply paying lip service to the ideals we supposedly cherish.
America is not easy. At least, it’s not supposed to be. Megan Rapinoe gets that.
The question, as this country prepares to celebrate its independence, is why so many of her detractors do not.
“I would have them look hard into what I’m actually saying and the actions that I’m doing,” Rapinoe said Wednesday when asked what she’d say to those who criticize her as un-American or question her patriotism.
“Maybe you don’t agree with every single way that I do it, and that can be discussed. I know that I’m not perfect,” Rapinoe added. “I think I stand for honesty and for truth and for wanting to have the conversation — and for looking at the country honestly and saying that, yes, we are a great country and there’s many things that are so amazing, and I feel very fortunate to be in this country. I’d never be able to do this in a lot of other places.
“But also, that doesn’t mean that we can’t get better. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always strive to be better,” she said. “This country was founded on a lot of great ideals, but it was also founded on slavery. I think we just need to be really honest about that and be really open in talking about that so we can reconcile that and hopefully move forward and make this country better for everyone.”
Already one of the more popular members of the U.S. team before this World Cup, Rapinoe has become something of an international Rorschach test for America in 2019 over the last 10 days.
Her views have never been a secret, but they garnered new attention after a months-old video of her saying she wouldn’t go to the White House surfaced, and The Hill website made an issue of her even older stance on the national anthem.
To many, she’s a hero, giving voice to the frustration and disappointment in a country that seems to stray further and further from its values, and the politicians who openly court those who demonize, among others, people of color, women and the LGBTQ community.
To others, including President Donald Trump, she is just another whiny, ungrateful athlete who doesn’t represent what “their” America is. Or pay them the respect they misguidedly think they are owed.
But the essence of America isn’t in its symbols. It’s in the values and principles those symbols represent. Equality for all. Freedom of speech. Democracy. A nation that is richer for welcoming people of different nationalities, cultures, faiths, genders and sexual orientations.
It takes courage to say your country isn’t perfect and demand that it do better, especially when no less than the president of the United States has turned his Twitter rage on you. But for Rapinoe, that is what being an American is.
As a woman and a lesbian, she knows first-hand what it is like to be marginalized simply for who she is. As a fellow human, she is appalled at the bias toward people of color that remains endemic in our society.
So no, Rapinoe will not back down from her comments – minus the expletive, and even that was only because she knew it would bother her mom – nor will she apologize. Protest, be it in words or actions, is not supposed to make people comfortable. That’s the point.
“I think I’ve grown in it, but I think I’ve always approached things that way,” Rapinoe said of her willingness to take a stand. “As you guys probably know, I’m pretty off the cuff. Probably sometimes too off the cuff.
“But yeah, I like to be open and honest. It feels weird to be any other way or to hold that back.”
Being on the national team, and now being one of its captains, affords Rapinoe a voice. It might be easier not to use it – you have thousands of people openly wishing injury and failure on you and see how you’d like it — but if not her, then who?
“Very early on this team, you realize how much media attention is on the team and how much impact we can have, for good and for bad, in every different way,” she said.
Like her or not, agree with her or not, Rapinoe is forcing us to examine our country and what we stand for. On the Fourth of July, there is no better reminder of what it means to be American.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: USWNT’s Megan Rapinoe is living her patriotism at World Cup. What’s your excuse?