U.S. Women Prove Exemplary Role Models

Megan Rapinoe, center, and her teammates celebrating their World Cup victory on Sunday. Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

By Charlie Warzel/NYT

The World Cup champions are a Choose Your Own Adventure of inspiration.

You could choose to focus on how the team represents the absolute best of the American ideal: a perfect, unapologetic encapsulation of defiance, determination and grace under pressure. You could choose to focus on the players’ status as queer icons or their fight for equal rights or their brand of activism with its intersectional understanding of politics, gender and race.

Then there’s their power as role models. As a Nike commercial put it, “a whole generation of girls and boys will go out and play and say things like, ‘I want to be like Megan Rapinoe when I grow up,’” adding that “they’ll be inspired to talk and win and stand up for themselves.”

There are two sides to attention: the ability to focus on things that matter, as well as the ability to spot attention hijackers. The first part, as it pertains to this United States national team (how about we have the men’s team use the gender modifier from here on out?) is well documented. For years, the teammates have chosen to use their athletic dominance to draw attention to inequities in pay as well as ways in which, as the captain, Megan Rapinoe, told reporters recently, the sport is a structurally broken “system that has kept women down for a long time.”You get only so many headlines in the run-up to a World Cup, and the women used much of their media coverage to draw added attention to the gender-discrimination lawsuit they filed against the United States Soccer Federation. 

Likewise, Ms. Rapinoe has deftly fused her athletic prowess with politics and used her ever-growing fame to draw fans’ attention toward the issues that matter to her and the sport. She’s fought for L.G.B.T.Q. rights and knelt in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. She’s also used her success to support development camps that help draw young women into her sport.

Ms. Rapinoe’s words reflect an innate understanding of the way information travels and is received — essentially, the entire media ecosystem. She knows the power of her platform, but she also knows how it can be hijacked and undermined.

This strategy — essentially, “have your enemies do your work for you” — makes Ms. Rapinoe and her teammates an excellent foil to a president with an oxygen-sucking gift for commandeering attention. Mr. Trump’s ability to hijack platforms and turn unrelated discussions into fights about him has scrambled the brains of his political opponents. 

The women’s team refused to play the role. In doing so, it occupied what Jenny Odell, the author of “How to Do Nothing,” a recent book on resisting the attention economy, calls “a third space.” This positioning, she explains, means neither submitting to a demand for attention nor blindly refusing it, but negating the terms of the demand. And “true resistance,” Odell writes, is “the ability not just to “withdraw attention but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it.”

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