ESPYS co-hosts Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird plot their course as athlete activists, white allies

There is no bigger power couple in the sports world right now than three-time WNBA champion Sue Bird and two-time World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe.

Not only do they star in sports — Bird is the longtime point guard for the Seattle Storm and a four-time Olympic gold medalist, and Rapinoe is a mainstay of the U.S. women’s national team and the NWSL’s Seattle Reign — but they also are cultural icons for their willingness to raise their voices on issues of social justice. Bird was instrumental in the groundbreaking WNBA collective bargaining agreement that was approved earlier this year, and Rapinoe has fought for equal pay for the USWNT and in 2016 was the first white athlete to join Colin Kaepernick’s protest by taking a knee during the national anthem.

On Sunday, along with Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, they will host The ESPYS (9 p.m. ET, ESPN), which will shift their focus to highlighting “narratives of service, perseverance and courage” within the world of athletics. On Tuesday, Bird and Rapinoe discussed how they plan to use their platform — and not use their platform — as white athletes, allies and activists, and reflected on times they wish they had done better.

ESPN: What are your thoughts on this week’s Supreme Court ruling that said federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ workers from discrimination?

Megan Rapinoe: It’s almost conflicting, because these decisions are so outrageous, to think that we would have to put law in. The sort of mood of the moment is, “Let’s create a society” — and I’m dreaming — “what if we lived in a world where we all respected each other because we were all actually equal and our society reflected that?”

While it’s a great step forward, and a very exciting day, it sort of does beg the question of, like, “Really? We’re still putting laws in about treating people differently?” Imagine caring so much about someone’s life that has nothing to do with you that you’d want to take their rights away. If you flip the question on its head, it just seems outrageous. Shame. Shame. Shame. On [Samuel] Alito, [Clarence] Thomas and [Brett] Kavanaugh. Your names are forever etched in history [for dissenting], and eventually there is some sort of god or karma or something. A special place for you. But it really was a positive day for the LGBTQ community and a big step going forward.

Sue Bird: There was a 24-to-48-hour period where across the ticker on CNN or whatever you watch, there was what [President Donald] Trump was trying to do. For those one or two days, for the LGBTQ community, it was like, “What the f—?” You know? We all had to live in this world where our rights weren’t going to be there, and they were going to get taken away from us. To have it changed and overruled was obviously amazing, but in that period of time, to feel that … and you can never fully understand another person’s journey or fight, but to feel that in our current climate with what’s going on socially, I don’t know. To have your rights taken away is no joke.

That was an experience that helped open my eyes even more to what’s happening in the black community, to what’s happening to people of color.

MR: I think it gave sort of an insight into the pervasive nature of white supremacy. It upholds the white, male, hetero, Christian lens, and that’s just not everyone. That’s not most of us. And we’re not trying to take that away from people, we’re just saying let us live our lives. There are all kinds of ways that this shows up. It’s not just someone calling you a slur, or it’s not just someone calling a black person a slur. It’s all these different ways, the systemic part of it all, that make a big difference.

SB: Something that Megan likes to say is that right now, things are being written down in permanent marker in our history. What side do you want to be on? I just think there’s something powerful about that.

Megan Rapinoe, who was the MVP and top goal-scorer at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, says she is keenly aware of her privilege and wants to cast the spotlight on women of color. Michael Owens

ESPN: How have your identities as LGBTQ people shaped your capacity for empathy in these moments?

MR: It gave me, as a white person from a pretty normal community, as someone who didn’t really find themselves to be any different, it gave that perspective of one aspect of being a minority. And then understanding that within that minority that we’re not a monolith. We have different experiences, but we do have an overall collective conscious. I feel like it really informed me, and I feel very lucky. I didn’t have the classic struggle of coming out and being gay. And struggling with that, not only with family but personally. So I feel like it’s just given me this different lens to look through, which now I look through for everything. And I think the main thing it gave me was just to believe people. If people tell you something, then believe them.

Sue and I were talking about kneeling and Colin Kaepernick and the flag and all this stuff. And what was happening was the collective voice of white people just saying, “We don’t believe you because that doesn’t align with what we believe and our experience.” And there isn’t just one experience in this world.

That’s just one thing. There are many gifts of being gay; I wish I could be gayer. I would be if I could. But that’s honestly one of the best things, and I’m so grateful for that experience.

SB: As a gay person, when people are around you or they ask a dumb question or say a stereotypical thing, that feeling is extremely hurtful. I’ve been able to call on those moments. And it’s such a s—ty thing, because all you’re doing is putting everyone into a group. That’s not how this is. As a gay woman, I feel like I’ve experienced that in my own way, in my own little walk.

There’s something that I can truly understand. And we’re seeing it now, because people are actually trying to educate themselves, are trying to be more aware. And at times it is going to be hard. It is going to be awkward. People are going to say the wrong thing, but it’s hopefully trending toward people not saying dumb s—. Can we curse on this?

MR: It’s happening.

SB: Maybe we can get to a place where you aren’t saying these stereotypical things because it’s not your world. Hopefully now it’ll be everybody’s world.

ESPN: How are the two of you thinking about your roles right now as white athletes?

SB: Where we are now, in 2020, both of us feel like — and I’m going to go out on a limb and speak for [Megan] a little bit — [that] in some ways we’re here to help teach white people. We do have a certain level of experience. We don’t know everything, and we’re also continuing our own education because that’s really important, because there’s no way to ever know everything — but I think it’s a great opportunity for us to have that empathy but also to help other white people. That’s really a place where we can have a huge impact and where it’s really needed. And then, of course, with our platform, we can speak to so many different people.

And the word “ally,” it’s kind of getting thrown around a little too much. Yes, you want to be an ally, but that’s a noun and we need the verb of that. And that’s also where we, with our platform, can have a major impact. I think about the WNBA playing this summer, and every day — if not every day [then] multiple times a week — we’re on calls with our association, we’re throwing out ideas and everybody is going to play a part in that. And I think as a white athlete, it’s just as important that we’re there, present, every single day.

MR: I look at it from a few different perspectives. First of all, we’re white people in this country, right, so we have privilege. We didn’t earn it, but we have a responsibility to, you know, make it even. I’ve been doing a little bit of reading, as I think we all have, and just kind of digging into the ideas about anti-racism more than just not being racist. In order for something to be anti-racism, whatever it is you’re doing actually has to balance it out. So we’ve been given this privilege, we stole this privilege, frankly. I felt this immediately — and it was very stark in my life after the World Cup. Now people are like, “Oh, this is so amazing, you’re standing [against] social injustice and you’re talking on all these things.” And whether that’s paid appearances or, you know, a book deal, or award shows, or just in general.

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It’s not just because I played well at the World Cup, and it’s not just because I speak on social issues. I’m white — that’s the really big part of it. There’s a reason Colin Kaepernick is not in the NFL right now and why he was blackballed in the way that he was. I think everybody has a responsibility to do what they can in the most impactful way that they can.

Obviously we’re athletes, we have a platform. We should use that to the best of our ability and at the same time share that platform with other people who are doing all of the work all of the time — the activists on the ground, the educators, you know, especially women of color and queer women of color are often left out of the conversation. Meanwhile, they are the architects of the whole conversation. Things that we’re saying came straight from their mouths, so [we need] to always find ways to really give credit back and start to break down for people why they’re more comfortable hearing it from me and not the person who it’s actually coming from.

So I feel a deep responsibility just as a human being, but also as someone who has benefited greatly off social activism in many different ways, to always give that credit back. And to then do everything I can to balance out the system, because right now it’s totally out of whack. Everything we do now has to be with anti-racism in mind and rooting out racism everywhere so that we can get to a society that is equal for all and then everyone can flourish and then it’s like — fair game.

SB: I feel like we know, as gay athletes, what an amazing feeling it is when somebody who is not gay supports you. When somebody who isn’t in that community, if you will, speaks out for you and is fighting that fight with you. That is a special thing, and the burden of it all does get lightened a little bit. I think I have that in the back of my mind too. I know what that’s like on the receiving end, so it’s also part of what motivates to help in that way and maybe give that feeling of removing a little bit of the weight, a little bit of the burden, for others.

MR: And also, if you see what’s going on in the country right now or if you’ve been paying attention to anything at all, what are we talking about here if you’re not outraged?

Sue Bird, one of the most decorated basketball players in history, says she has listened to her friends and teammates and has learned from them. Allen Kee/ESPN Images

ESPN: What are those steps that you’re taking to forward your education on these topics?

SB: For me, it’s kind of come in the form of just listening, right? Talking to the people in my life that have had to deal with this, fight this, everything under the sun, and just listening to their stories. Something that I’ve really picked up on is every black person has been affected — and there’s no getting around that. Watching George Floyd get murdered, watching Ahmaud Arbery get murdered, has brought up a lot of trauma for many people who have found a way to suppress it, push it away, because they had to in order to survive from a mental health standpoint.

But all of these things have crept back, and so in listening to some of my friends speak, that’s really where I’ve found a lot of my education.

MR: We just participated in #ShareTheMicNow, and the whole idea was just to follow the leader. Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Tarana Burke, this is their life’s work. They’re organizers, they’re activists, they’re artists, they’re in the movement. I’m used to speaking out. I’m used to saying things. But it’s like, “No, take that step back and just follow the leader.” That may be reading the information that Movement for Black Lives is putting forward and understanding what “defund the police” actually means. That’s listening to people like Colin Kaepernick. Hearing him speak was actually all I needed in order for me to take that knee with him.

And then on top of that, there’s articles on articles. I mean, great books like “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo. Ijeoma is actually from Seattle, so support local with that. “White Fragility,” “How to Be an Antiracist.” There are so many amazing people to follow.

And then starting to move from like, “Oh, I’m going to listen to the black people,” as a monolith, to, “We’re going to listen to Rachel and see what she has to say and her perspective; then we’re going to listen to, you know, Alicia; then we’re going to listen to Lovie.”

ESPN: Is there a moment that you reflect on now as a white person that you wish you would have handled differently?

SB: What happened in the WNBA in 2016 is where I’m having my own reckoning. Between 2016 and now, there’s not much difference. The videos are the same — police brutality and senseless killing of black people. It’s four years later, and I’m just kind of like, in the WNBA we wore T-shirts. It was started by the Minnesota Lynx. The New York Liberty followed. And then our whole league got on board. There was some drama there, if you remember the story. The league, at some point, announced that they would fine us.

Looking back, as a white athlete, yes, I supported the mission statement. Yes, I supported what was happening. I wore a shirt. We did a media blackout as a team. We were all on the same page, but wow, I could’ve done so much more. I know it; I see it; I hear it from my teammates. I believed in it — it wasn’t about not believing in it — and yet there I was, like, just there to wear a T-shirt? There’s just so much more that could’ve been done. I look back on that as a moment where I could’ve had some serious impact and instead I just kind of went along with what everyone else was doing.

MR: I actually have a really recent story. So we did #ShareTheMicNow, and the whole idea was to decenter white women and to center black women. So it was really important all throughout the week to only post and amplify black women voices. It was actually hard because we’re used to talking and being out there and posting, but it was like this exercise in stepping back.

And so the event was on Wednesday during the day, and I was booked to go on “Stephen Colbert” that night. I did kind of stress about it, but then we decided it would kind of be a good opportunity to talk about #ShareTheMicNow. Stephen was asking questions like, “What is it that you’re doing and how did it come about and who was involved?” And this was like a classic subconscious centering of white people over black people, white women over black women. So I get on there, and I think in the context I was thinking that he was asking what people were involved, and I was just thinking like, what white women were involved to pass the mic over? But as he asked that question, I just started rattling off like five or six white women’s names, and I actually didn’t say any names of the black women.

I don’t know if he caught it, and I actually didn’t even think about it until a few hours later, when it dawned on me. I’m like, “Oh, this is the subtle but constant centering of one over the other.” I feel like I’m pretty educated and all-in on this and want to be conscious and trying to learn, and still, in that moment when I have this big platform, I’m still only saying white names and not saying black names. That is the sort of unconscious, pervasive, systemic racism or bias that we have to become really aware of so that we can root it out.

ESPN: Women have been at the forefront of so many of these conversations over the years. What do you think has informed the level of solidarity that we’ve seen among our female athletes?

SB: Female athletes are used to having to fight for themselves. Female athletes are used to being pushed to the side and not having the attention they deserve. And so with that, they’re used to using their voices, they’re used to having to advocate for themselves, for each other and in my case for a league. So there’s just something very familiar and something that we’re grounded in. Whenever something does need all of us to have that unified voice or need all of us to show up, we’re like, “Cool, tell me when and where.” And that’s 100% the vibe.

We’re wired that way because it’s how we’ve grown up in this world — to have to fight for each other, to have to fight for that recognition.

MR: We don’t fit into the patriarchal society. We have all of these different things that we feel as though we are constantly fighting for and advocating for. We see that within our own teams and within our own leagues, so it’s never just one person being like, “I’m fighting for gay rights.” A lot of other people will be like, “Yeah, me too.” In the WNBA, I think like 75 or 80% are black, and then if you take a pay-equity issue like on our team, you know that cuts across race and gender and sexuality. We’re all being underpaid. It’s unfortunately innate in the sport.

For me, being a gay, female professional athlete is the protest. We already are doing the protest. That just leads to us seeing that in each other, and then that rallying cry is much easier to make. You don’t ever really feel like you’re the only one talking about anything. There’s that sense of camaraderie and understanding and perspective in the protest, whatever it may be.

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