Megan Rapinoe, Bill Russell and the intersection of personal and politics

Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images
Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images /

Two memoirs by superstar athletes Megan Rapinoe and Bill Russell look at injustice in unique and compelling ways.

With athletes becoming more outspoken in recent years regarding social injustice, it is no surprise that the books written by them would also become more socially conscious as well. This is certainly the case with Megan Rapinoe’s new memoir One Life, which is as much a soccer story as it is a queer narrative and a tale of her fight against sexism. Though that is not to say that athletes of the past did not do the same thing themselves as the recently reprinted autobiography by Bill Russell, Go Up For Glory, demonstrates. Each of these books, in its own way, displays how the worlds of sports and politics intersected for these two remarkable athletes.

Megan Rapinoe, with her on-field protests and dynamic public presence, has transcended the realm of sports, making her recognizable to many who would not consider themselves soccer fans. She tells of her journey, from going up in a large family in Reading, California to the arduous journey to become one of the best and most successful soccer players in the world. It’s a pretty standard narrative for an athlete’s autobiography, though her detours into political areas, along with her engaging personality, help it to stand out. However, perhaps not as much as would be hoped.

One issue is that Rapinoe seems to mistake candor for revelation in this book. The tone is affable and inviting, so that reading it is like listening to a much more famous friend tell you about their life. She touches on a number of sensitive personal topics such as the break-up of romantic relationships and the drug problems and incarceration of her brother Brian, though it still feels like Rapinoe is holding back.

That being said, there is real value in her story, especially when talking about realizing her identity as a gay woman. While there has been tremendous progress in societal acceptance of LGBTQ folks and a greater number of queer narratives in popular culture, for an athlete of Rapinoe’s stature to offer her own coming out story is still a notable thing worth recognizing and celebrating. For queer athletes who have not often seen themselves represented in sports stories, One Life is sure to be a refreshing read.

One Life is at its best when discussing the way issues of sexism have arisen within the United States soccer infrastructure, with men consistently receiving greater compensation than the women in spite of the fact that they have been far less successful in international competition. The story of the women’s fight for equality, ultimately necessitating a court case, is equally inspiring and infuriating. In these sections, she is able to blend the personal and the political in a way that seems more organic, forceful, and urgent than when she writes about police brutality or societal ills that are less related to her own existence. While there is certainly value in a white author bringing attention to racial injustice, Rapinoe does not approach it beyond a surface level, failing to add much to the conversation. Apart from the aforementioned sections on the various forms of sexism she has faced, her discussions of social justice rarely rise above the platitudinal. One Life wants to be a call to action, a book that prompts those that are only peripherally concerned with politics to find their voice. It may achieve its goal, though perhaps only with those who enter the text already on-board with everything Rapinoe is saying.

The stories of Megan Rapinoe and Bill Russell show the arc of activism in sports

Bill Russell’s Go Up For Glory, co-written with Bill McKinney was originally published in 1966 before falling out of print for several decades. Thankfully, it was recently reprinted and remains as engaging as it must have been upon its initial publication over 50 years ago. Russell has a distinctive voice, one that is forceful and ingratiating even though it makes little attempt to win over the reader. Instead, Russell is just such a thoughtful and fascinating person that even those who do not care about basketball or are not necessarily sympathetic to all of his opinions are bound to be enraptured by this book.

Go Up For Glory starts by telling the story of Russell’s upbringing in Louisiana, his family’s move to Oakland, and his fitful beginnings as a basketball player. Yet interspersed throughout are tales of racism and the way that he and his family resisted it, holding on to their humanity in spite of a society intent on snuffing it out. From there on, the book becomes more elliptical, hopping from topic to topic with the following chapters being based upon certain themes rather than a strict chronological recounting of his life.

For basketball fans, there is much to enjoy. Russell holds nothing back in writing about his teammates and his relationship with coach Red Auerbach, filling the book with a number of revealing and humorous anecdotes about all of them in his time with the Celtics. He really does a good job of helping the reader get a good feel for all of them. There are also some intriguing comments interspersed throughout such as when he calls Auerbach a “dictator” who he only has a cordial relationship with, though his respect for the man also shines through. It’s a fascinating capsule of a bygone era in the NBA, a time when a coach could punch the opponent’s owner before a Finals game and face no repercussions for it.

Yet the primary topic of this book, even when Russell is ostensibly writing about basketball, is racism. It is a ubiquitous presence that he has had to face and navigate and fight to overcome. He writes of the resistance he faced from neighbors when he bought a house in an otherwise white neighborhood and the quota system the NBA employed to limit the number of black players in the league. Throughout these sections, he is both perceptive and impassioned — intelligent enough to provide thoughtful diagnoses of the racism within society and forceful enough to keep the book from ever becoming an academic treatise.

It is disheartening just how relevant much Russell’s book is considering how long ago he wrote it. Yet those who care about justice and fighting for racial equality should consider themselves lucky to be able to read his words. He writes that he can “never reconcile myself to the fact that there will be a compromise on civil rights” and indeed, Go Up For Glory is an uncompromising work. When thinking about his own goals for this book, he writes that his wish was “that this book should stand up twenty years from now or a hundred years from now as an honest and accurate statement of what the world was like for one man at one time.” With Go Up For Glory, Russell certainly achieved that, and much more.

Both One Life and Go Up For Glory are good reads for the politically engaged sports fan as books that concretely show how the personal and the political have blended for these two superstars. The irony though is that despite Go Up For Glory being published over a half-century before One Life, it still manages to feel like the more relevant and urgent read. It is a more clear-eyed work that examines its topics with greater depth and insight. I believe that Russell’s book is worth seeking out by basically everyone with the slightest interest in the NBA or in issues of racial injustice while Rapinoe’s book may only be of true interest to diehard soccer fans, though both are worth reading.

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