Soccer star and activist Megan Rapinoe speaks to Carter Town Hall
Emory University hosted the 41st annual Carter Town Hall on Sept. 19, inviting first-year students to ask World Cup winner Megan Rapinoe about using her platform to advocate for equal rights and pay equity.
“The first year of college is the time to give yourself permission to figure out who you are, … what you’re interested in and how you want to show up in the world.”
At the 41st annual Carter Town Hall, Megan Rapinoe encouraged Emory students to be themselves, be good to others and use their voices to advance the greater good.
The Carter Town Hall started in 1982 at the behest of President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, with the intention to inspire first-year students. From the beginning, he promised students could ask anything without his seeing questions ahead of time, and that he would answer every question. For almost four decades, Carter kept that promise, responding to questions about everything from how he would address conflicts in the Middle East in the 21st century to whether he would ever eat almond butter.
As Carter settles into retirement, others who embody his commitment to human rights have been called upon to deliver the keynote. In 2020, grandson Jason Carter, who is chairman of The Carter Center board and who was a member of the Georgia State Senate, fielded questions from the class of 2024. Last year, former United Nations ambassador and civil rights activist Andrew Young encouraged students in the Class of 2025 to reach across the political aisle.
This year, two months after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her efforts to secure pay equity for women soccer players, Rapinoe candidly answered questions from the Class of 2026 about risking her reputation and career for her convictions.
Rapinoe is the forward for the OL Reign women’s soccer team, based in Tacoma, Washington. She grew up the youngest of six children in Redding, California, and started playing soccer as a child along with her twin sister Rachael and brother Brian. Megan and Rachael both secured soccer scholarships to play at the University of Portland, where the team won the NCAA Women’s Championship their first year.
In college, Rapinoe caught the attention of the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT), and today she is one of the most recognizable soccer players in the world. As a member of the USWNT, she helped win the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup tournaments and was awarded the Golden Boot in 2019. Rapinoe also helped Team USA win gold against Japan at the 2012 London Olympics.
Off the field, Rapinoe has been a fierce advocate for many social justice issues. She knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement. She has spoken out against laws banning transgender youth from playing sports. And, at the 2022 ESPY Awards, in her speech for winning Best Play, she called for WNBA player and Black Lives Matter activist Brittney Griner’s safe return from Russia.
Most notably, Rapinoe and her teammates sued the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) for gender pay inequity under the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For context, FIFA set aside $400 million in total prize money for the 2018 men’s World Cup, including $38 million to the winning team from France. For the entire 2019 women’s tournament, just $30 million was set aside and only $4 million went to the winning United States team.
Earlier this year, the women’s team reached a $24 million settlement with USSF. The settlement includes backpay for previous World Cup prize money and commits that men and women players will be paid at an equal rate including World Cup bonuses moving forward. The agreement also requires U.S. Soccer to provide an equal number of charter flights to both teams, as well as equal-quality venues and field playing surfaces to the men’s and women’s teams.
Rapinoe shares her life story and fight for fairness in her 2020 autobiography “One Life,” which is a New York Times bestseller.
Before she started fielding questions from the audience, Rapinoe joked, “My motto is [to] follow the kids in everything. You guys always know what’s up.”
“I now know how to use BeReal,” she said, referring to the newly popular photo sharing app.
A hero’s welcome
The 2022 Carter Town Hall was held in the Woodruff PE Center gymnasium and on Zoom, with nearly 2,000 people in attendance. It began with an introduction about the significance of the event from Enku Gelaye, senior vice president and dean of Campus Life.
Paige Alexander, CEO of The Carter Center, followed. Alexander’s son plays soccer for the men’s team at Emory. She mentioned that Rapinoe’s activism on and off the field sparked many dinnertime conversations in her home.
“Megan has been a true champion on and off the pitch,” Alexander said. “For us, looking at the fight she’s had for LGBTQIA rights, for women’s equity and salary equity, for human rights in general, really means this is what The Carter Center is all about.”
Following Alexander’s remarks, Emory President Gregory L. Fenves then introduced Rapinoe. He noted that thousands of students have been deeply impacted by the Carter Town Hall over the years. He also said that Rapinoe stands on Carter’s shoulders through her courage, compassion and convictions.
“Megan Rapinoe has made an impact as a world-class athlete and powerful social activist,” Fenves said. “Through her advocacy, Megan has stood for issues of racial justice, LGBTQ+ rights and gender equity, tackling head-on the fight for equal pay for women in professional sports. Like President Carter, she has played a pivotal role in changing history.”
When Rapinoe took the stage, she started by telling Emory first-year students that anything is possible. She shared a few anecdotes and tidbits that she wished she’d known in college.
She also discussed her journey of coming out her first year as well as what she’s learned about teamwork throughout her career.
“The most effective teams are not the ones where people sacrifice everything to be on the team,” Rapinoe said. “It’s full of people who refuse to sacrifice themselves, and they bring whatever their work is, whatever their special talent is, whatever personality trait they have for the greater good … When everyone starts to show up as their full, entire selves, now we’re getting into the magic.”
She also detailed the arduous fight she and her teammates waged for equal pay. Rapinoe recalled being scared and discouraged many times, but she said, “we had to win.” She also emphasized the importance of the 20 other people who she stood alongside throughout the lawsuit, and how that process shifted her perspective.
“Something I wish someone would’ve told me in college, and I’m coming to it now at the tender age of 37, is that the work we’re supposed to do in life really has nothing to do with your job,” Rapinoe said.
“Think about not just what you want to do, but who you want to be in the world and marrying those two,” she continued. “That’s your work in the world. How you show up for other people, how you use that special talent that you have, that special something, that thing that you’re passionate about to ultimately affect the world in a positive way. I really believe that everyone has a responsibility to make the world a better place in whatever way they can be most effective.”
First-year students and some student athletes were invited to attend the Carter Town Hall in person and online this year. They submitted more than 400 questions online, which were presented by students Mia Leutzinger and Sam Shafiro, members of the Barkley Forum for Debate, Dialogue and Deliberation.
Students pose for a selfie at the 2022 Carter Town Hall.
Rapinoe answered a series of rapid-fire questions from students for about 40 minutes. Below are a few of the questions and excerpts from her answers.
Darisi G. and Laura Z., both from New Jersey: What’s the best piece of life advice you’ve received?
Rapinoe: One of the best things that I’ve heard is you don’t always get to control what happens, but you always get to control how you react in it. I think particularly in sports, I’ve had coaches that I bumped heads with, or teammates, but you always get the opportunity to choose how you show up, not only for yourself, but for other people. I feel like then it allows you to sleep well at night, knowing that you chose how you want to show up, that you chose compassion and empathy.
At the Carter Town Hall, students are allowed to ask the speaker anything without them having to see the questions ahead of time.
Rui from Japan and Taeseong from New Jersey: As a symbol of progress, what are some struggles of being an icon, particularly when your sponsors have a history of going against the causes you advocate for?
Rapinoe: I think the biggest struggle is self-determination and self-belief in the face of so many people, companies or our own federation gaslighting us, telling us that we weren’t good enough, or that we didn’t deserve that. In the face of all odds, stick-to-it-ness, self-belief and belief in our group that we were doing the right thing. When someone tells you you’re crazy all the time, you start to question, am I? It’s a muscle for sure to stick to your guns, especially when you know deep down that it’s right. That’s one of the things about equal pay we all learned is don’t let anyone tell you you’re too small, you can’t do it or you’re not thinking clearly. I feel like our group of players, and really the entire history of the women’s national team, has that thread of rebellion … No one is too small to make the world a better place.
Sam Shafiro, a member of the Barkley Forum for Debate, Dialogue and Deliberation, presented questions from students.
Ethan from Charlotte: What advice can you give on overcoming burnout, especially in an activity you love?
Rapinoe: Take breaks. Take a lot of breaks. Burnout comes from doing the same thing over, over and over ... Your mind, your emotions, the way you feel, everything is made to adapt, so constantly challenge yourself with different activities. And then, rest. We live in a go-go-go grind culture, but periods of boredom are important to spur creativity, and the periods of rest are important to let your body heal.
Rapinoe answered more than a dozen questions submitted by Emory students at the 2022 Carter Town Hall.
Jesse from New Jersey: Do you have any tips for young adults in queer spaces on how to break into historically ostracized industries and communities?
Rapinoe: Showing up as your full self [and] finding that community that can support you I think is really important, especially for breaking into those types of industries where you may not be able to find [support] in that industry. When we keep ourselves small and internal, the stories can go any which way and it can feel very lonely. But the more we talk about it, the more we show up as our full selves, the more we can fill that space … Then, I would encourage all of the straight allies, which would hopefully be everyone who’s not one of the letters, to help set that environment for us, so we don’t have to walk into those ostracizing companies, communities or environments.
Getting in the game
The evening concluded with Gelaye embracing Rapinoe onstage and encouraging students to take the nuggets of wisdom and make a positive impact in the world.
After the event, a few students lingered, including members of Emory’s men’s and women’s soccer teams who attended a reception with Rapinoe earlier in the evening and presented her with a team jersey and soccer ball. For many, it was a chance to meet their hero.
Deja Shearrill, a sophomore and mid-fielder for the Emory Oxford women’s soccer team, said she’s been watching Rapinoe play since she was a child. Shearrill started playing soccer after going to one of her brother’s games in her hometown of Byram, Mississippi.
“She mixes activism with sports and uses her platform in an inspiring way,” Shearrill said. “To hear someone of her status talk about rest: being a student-athlete at Emory is so demanding. The coursework is rigorous, plus we have to train. If she can prioritize rest, so can I.”
Alejandro Gomez, a senior mid-fielder on the Emory men’s soccer team, said he started following Rapinoe’s career when he was a kid in Caracas, Venezuela. His father played soccer and his mother played volleyball, so sports were always a part of the family. Gomez said that Rapinoe’s remarks applied to both soccer and life.
“Being yourself, and not sacrificing yourself for the team, but allowing everyone to bring their best side, it applies to life and work,” Gomez said. “As an athlete, I always love seeing people come together and build community, just like Megan brought people together for the greater good. It allows you to build a bigger team behind a good cause.”
Lola McGuire, a first-year political science major from Nashville, Tennessee, does not play soccer, but said she grew up watching Rapinoe play. She said that Rapinoe’s comments about making space for others resonated with her.
“I like what she said about showing up as yourself and allowing people to show up as themselves,” McGuire said. “I tend to push my way into situations, but that can come at the cost of others. I’ll keep that with me.”
About this story: Text by Kelundra Smith. Photos by Kay Hinton, Jack Kearse, Parker Smith, The Carter Center and Brad Smith/isiphotos.com. Video by Stephen Nowland and Sarah Woods. Design by Elizabeth Hautau Karp.