Women’s sports in general and women’s soccer in particular are not like most other sports fandoms you’re likely to see in the wider world of sports. It has a larger percentage of female fans, many of whom are socially progressive and vocal about issues outside of sports. Far more than we typically see in American football, baseball or hockey. Which may go a long way in explaining why athletes’ personalities play such a big role in how the fan groups interact with each other, the teams and the athletes themselves.
To a large and vocal segment of fans, rooting interests are as much about what kind of person the athletes is as about their ability. It matters if they promote brands that champion social justice; it matters if they work with media groups the fans perceive as bad; it matters who they tell others to vote for and the politics they have.
I should stop here to say that not all fans think the same or have the same core beliefs. There are a lot of fans who are too young to have become engaged in politics or social causes. There are fans who hold more conservative views of politics. There are fans who only absorb a more filtered version of the athlete's opinions/politics from ESPN-like or quick interviews and don’t care as long as they can hit an upper 90 shot when it counts.
When it comes to baseball and American football, I am the third type of fan. Because Aaron Rodgers doesn’t put out most of what he believes in terms of politics I don’t go looking for it. If he promoted something harmful (like if he came out tomorrow and said fracking was awesome because who needs clean air and water anyway or women don’t belong in professional sports) then I would have to confront what that means for me as a Green Bay Packers fan. But there is something of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach that I have when it comes to the Packers and the Boston Red Sox players.
Athletes are in a unique position to be able to speak on topics outside of the X’s and O’s of their sport. They have a built in fan base, experience with types of people different from themselves and influence to bring attention to their choice causes. On the other hand, by saying or doing something that is judged to be somehow out of bounds, they might sacrifice everything.
In women’s soccer there often seems to be an assumption of the players as progressive until proven otherwise. If an athlete doesn’t state any political leanings then they are assumed by a good deal of the fan base to be at least generically progressive and at best to believe in all the pet causes that fan believes in. If an athlete doesn’t otherwise contradict it, fans like to believe that their favorite players support the causes that are nearest to the fan’s heart. Which leads to a lot of projection of thoughts and feelings on to athletes who might or might not believe what that fan does.
And then comes along an athlete like Megan Rapinoe or Jaelene Hinkle (now Jaelene Daniels). They share a lot in common. Neither have really stuck to sports; both put their political beliefs before their job security; both have received commendation and condemnation for what they have said and done.
The difference between Rapinoe and Daniels is simple. Fans generally think Rapinoe is right and Daniels wrong. Rapinoe was trying to use her platform to call attention to racial divides in America when she knelt, the same way that Colin Kaepernick did. Rapinoe has said her intent was to use her platform to try and put the spotlight on the struggle of those who have historically been marginalized. Daniels on the other hand punched down against a group that has historically been marginalized. She might wrap her knuckles in quotes from her bible but the blows land no more softly to those who are on the landing end. And that is the key difference between them.
Sometimes sticking to sports allows the public to focus only on the athletes’ performance - what they do on the pitch, without any of the so-called distraction around them. Other times players not sticking to sports is what turns a player who might have flown under the radar into a more known figure. But in the moment it can be difficult to know if it’s something that will fade into the background or be a lasting part of who they are. Say Rapinoe never knelt and kicked off her more activist side publicly or Daniels never posted on Instagram the first time, things might have been different for both of them.
That is the thing about not sticking to sports; you aren’t just moving out of the lane that the world has cast you into because of your job title, you’re putting your morals on display and asking people to judge you on them. And then you have to be prepared for that judging to take place when you dip your toe into that river, lest you be carried away by it. Rapinoe has become a near cult figure in pop culture and Daniels all but gave up her chance to be on a roster for the World Cup, because they decided not to “stick to sports”.
There will always be athletes who keep things to themselves and athletes who speak out. And there will always be fans who wished they had stayed quiet and stuck to kicking a soccer ball or who wished they would speak up about this issue or that. Players will only have more options going forward of things to talk about, more interviews to hold and questions not having to do with game play. And one by one they are going to have to decide where they stand and if they want to stand publicly. Making their choices for, you know, personal reasons.