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.”
But for the last month, the team has also provided a master class in how to wield what is, for many of us, our greatest weapon: our attention.
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.
She’s turned her fame into a platform, which is a word we seem to use endlessly these days. (The social networks are platforms, the news media’s a platform, so is the presidency. You, me — all of us are tiny platforms!) But the word is crucial in understanding this team’s particular achievement. It’s a word Ms. Rapinoe uses herself time and again to discuss activism. “I have no interest in extending our platform to him,” she said to Sports Illustrated in May in reference to a potential White House visit. After similar comments went viral during the tournament, prompting a rebuke from President Trump on Twitter, she expanded on the idea:
Considering how much time and effort and pride we take in the platform that we have, and using it for good, and for leaving the game in a better place and hopefully the world in a better place, I don’t think that I would want to go, and I would encourage my teammates to think hard about lending that platform or having that co-opted by an administration that doesn’t feel the same way and fight for the same things we fight for.
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.
Better yet, Ms. Rapinoe and the rest of the team know how to set the terms of engagement and stay on the offensive — they force their ideological opposition to respond and often make them look petty and weak. In a wonderful piece, the Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins described the effect of this mind-set as the team’s “pursuing an insurrection in which its opponents are actually its secret teammates.”
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 traditional approaches — fact-checking, for instance — are defensive; they require lending some portion of your platform (and attention) to the hijacker. The press has figured this out the hard way during the Trump administration. Batting down falsehoods and conspiracy theories requires meeting the president on his terms and playing into the oppositional role Mr. Trump has cast for the media.
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.”
The president’s tweets were intended to ignite a familiar discussion about patriotism and civility — with Mr. Trump at the center of the show. Rather than engage on those terms, the women chose to make their moment about their story, as athletes and as human beings.
As Ms. Jenkins wrote in her column, the World Cup champions are after something “more subversive” than equal pay — they’re after sovereignty. “Real power,” she argues, “is self-ownership — uncomplaining, unwhining pleasure in self-fashioning and rejecting victimhood.” This is this team’s most important lesson: The end result of ignoring distraction and setting the terms of the conversation is real, undeniable power.
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Charlie Warzel, a New York Times Opinion writer at large, covers technology, media, politics and online extremism. He welcomes your tips and feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org | @cwarzel
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