The raw, unbridled hatred heaped upon gay soccer icon Megan Rapinoe reminds me of another athlete and another time in the United States.
Others of my vintage will also recall when Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay, an outrageous, rebellious braggart who made certain that white America knew he was a loud and proud Black man.
After whupping the fearsome thug Sonny Liston to secure the world heavyweight boxing title as Clay, he promptly introduced himself the next morning as Cassius X, a member of the Nation of Islam and soon to be known as Muhammad Ali.
"I believe in Allah and in peace," Ali informed news snoops after he'd used his fists of fury to raise a collection of gnarly knots on Liston's head. "I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman. I was baptized when I was 12, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not a Christian anymore. I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want."
That's not how white America expected, or wanted, Black people to speak in 1964.
"It was unimaginable for most Black athletes to stand up that way and say, 'I'm going to play by my rules and to criticize presidents and to criticize the war and to call all of white America a fraud,' " explains Ali biographer Jonathan Eig. "That was radical."
So was telling Uncle Sam to go to hell.
Ali became America's most notable draft dodger three years later, when he declined Uncle Sam's invitation to travel across the world and spray bullets in Vietnam. ("I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.") He was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and booted out of boxing for 3½ prime time years.
As much as sports scribes had been humored and entertained by Ali's childlike charms, many of the elder statesmen on press row harrumphed mightily in consideration of his anti-war rhetoric, and his embrace of the Muslim faith was viewed as an example of the dangers of cult-like brainwashing by the Nation of Islam, otherwise known as the Black Muslims.
"I pity Clay and abhor what he represents," wrote Jimmy Cannon. "In the years of hunger during the Depression, the Communists used famous people the way the Black Muslims are exploiting Clay. This is a sect that deforms the beautiful purpose of religion."
Even racial barrier-busting ballplayer Jackie Robinson struck a sour note.
"He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam," Robinson said.
The most stinging indictment of Ali was delivered by David Susskind, an American television personality and producer who unleashed an incendiary, racist attack on the boxer and the Muslim faith: "They hate whites, the Muslims. They mean genocide. Elijah (Muhammad) preaches genocide. Muslims are hooligans, killers, and they intend a total segregation of the races, that's what they want. And they want the final holocaust, they want genocide, white genocide, that's what that man preaches. Not that he can preach anything. He has trouble saying hello. Anything that's not Black is evil and rotten and contagious and they want to exterminate it."
He described Ali as "a simplistic fool and pawn and semi-illiterate and a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should."
Clay-turned-Ali had become the biggest pain in the ass since the first case of hemorrhoids was diagnosed. He was the most hated man in America, reviled by whites, Blacks, men, women, children and probably some house pets as well.
And now we have Rapinoe, who's moved the needle on America's hateometer like no North American athlete since the 1960s Ali.
Sure, there have been other villains, such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, ARod, Tonya Harding, Lance Armstrong, Mike Tyson, Michael Vick, Pete Rose, Johnny Manziel and Colin Kaepernick. All but Smith, Carlos and Kaepernick cheated or spent time behind bars.
Rapinoe did neither, yet she's taken more wallops than one of Tyson's old sparring partners.
And for what? Because she took a knee during The Star-Spangled Banner to protest social injustice. Because she refused to sing the national anthem. (I've got news for you: so did the aforementioned Jackie Robinson.) Because she's passionate in her advocacy for equity and equality. Because she trumpets her LGBT(etc.) community. Because she's engaged to a she (hoops legend Sue Bird). Because she wants women to have control of their bodies. Because modesty isn't part of her makeup, like purple or blue hair. Because she's been a magazine cover girl. Because she's never been shy about sharing her opinion. Because she won and bragged about it.
Oh, and let's not forget that faulty kick from the spot in the United States Women's National Team's 5-4 shootout loss to Sweden that ushered the Americans out of the FIFA Women's World Cup the other day Down Under.
That was some seriously flawed footballing, so ghastly that former U.S. president and current presidential wannabe Donald Trump broke free from his lawyers long enough to use Rapinoe's flub as part of his arsenal in his bid to return to the White House.
"Nice shot Megan," he posted on Truth Social. "The U.S. is going to Hell!!! MAGA."
No doubt that cheap shot earned Trump some freebe political brownie points, but let's keep in mind that it wasn't Rapinoe's penalty that scuppered the Americans. Young Sophia Smith had the game on her right boot seconds later. Alas, she kicked the ball from a spot in Australia but it landed somewhere in New Zealand.
Ah, but Smith's gaffe=empathy; Rapinoe's gaffe=hate.
As far as I can determine, the American's sole bout of wrongfootedness during her stretch with the Yankee Doodle Damsels occurred in a 13-0 blowout win vs. Thailand at the 2019 World Cup. Rapinoe acted like a damn fool in an affront to sporting decency everywhere, but she wasn't flying solo. Her associates were equally contemptible in celebrating each goal with a war-has-ended energy. It was an egregious lapse in judgment, worthy of scorn but not a lifetime of revilement.
Perhaps history will be kind to Rapinoe, as it was with Ali, who had made the journey from reviled to revered long before his death in 2016. Americans can be a very forgiving people.
I just don't know what it is that Rapinoe needs to be forgiven for.