“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 41stSt 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 of inspiring 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 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.”