clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

U.S. Soccer did a big thing badly by suspending Hope Solo

The comments and subsequent contract termination and suspension that Hope Solo was handed last week were hardly the star goalkeeper's finest moments. But the whole episode hasn't exactly made U.S. Soccer look great, either.

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

There's this episode of Sports Night called "Mary Pat Shelby." The show hasn't been on for nearly two decades, but there's a line from the episode that I still find myself going back to too much. It's uttered twice in "Mary Pat Shelby," first as something of a throwaway at the beginning and then more forcefully later, during a montage-y moment of triumph about Doing The Right Thing.

We did a big thing badly.

I thought about it when Hope Solo was charged with domestic violence in 2014. When U.S. Soccer's tone deafness became so pervasive that none of us could hear the song right anymore. It was June 2014, and four months before the USWNT was set to begin qualifiers for the World Cup. Four years before, they'd suffered a massive loss to Mexico there, failing to outright qualify for the 2011 World Cup, and needing to take a complicated route through Italy to get there instead.

The USWNT had no desire to repeat this embarrassment, and making sure Solo - widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world - would be backstopping the team through qualifying this time around was a necessary part of that. So U.S. Soccer, aside from releasing a statement saying that they were "aware of the situation," remained quiet on Solo's arrest. This wasn't words, wasn't a clumsy criticism of a teammate or an in-the-moment thought from somebody who's admittedly not great at losing. This - allegedly assaulting two members of her family, one of them a teenager - was a criminal act.

This is how much U.S. Soccer wanted to discipline Solo for her actions: they continued to let her play, continued to let her not only prepare for World Cup qualification, but also pursue the USWNT shutout record. When she broke it, they celebrated her, marketed games around her and a chance to witness history. That September, three months after her arrest and with charges still pending, Solo took the field in a warmup game for the qualifying tournament wearing the captain's armband.

We did a big thing badly.

It popped up again a year later, with more details on the night in question - all of them ugly and none of them casting Solo in a light that could even remotely be considered flattering - emerging via a piece on ESPN's Outside the Lines. The report was quickly dismissed by U.S. Soccer, which rallied around Solo and refused to talk about it beyond Jill Ellis saying "that was a long time ago, I'll be honest, we've moved on" and that she was only aware of the OTL segment and espnW piece that came along with it because she'd been made aware of it by the team's press officer. That was Sunday. On Monday, Hope Solo took the field in the USWNT's World Cup opener.

The U.S. had lost a heartbreaking World Cup final four years before, and they needed - and we needed - to fix that. And part of fixing that meant having the best goalkeeper in the world behind you. We kept doing the big thing badly.

My own history with soccer starts at growing up playing on the green grass fields and gray concrete streets of my suburban north Jersey town. I loved it, even when it was too hot or too cold. When it rained and was too muddy, I loved it double. I loved pick up-games in front of our house, the ball fading with the light of the late summer nights. And I loved it even after I shouldn't have loved it anymore.

By my sophomore year punk rock and I had found each other. Weekends spent crammed too many to a car, then crammed into a VFW hall, then crammed into a diner booth, the smoke from our bummed cigarettes hanging there, like messed up halos. I was also still a soccer player, some strange contrast that I could never navigate quite right, either with my friends who didn't get the athlete part, or with my teammates, who didn't get the me part.

As an adult I found a place where these things coexist - soccer and punk rock - my weekends now spent crammed into the upstairs of a Newark bar, then crammed into the stands on the corner of the stadium's south end. But as a high schooler I was on the other end, getting Mean Girls'd because I didn't run with the popular crowd the way my so-called teammates did.

It's why when I saw some strange adult version of it happen to Hope Solo in 2007, I felt sympathy for her. Why I wanted to be on her side, despite the fact that I didn't totally agree with the way she'd very publicly called out her teammates following the U.S.'s crash and burn out of that year's World Cup.

Most of what we know - or most of what I, person who has not read Hope Solo's book, know, at least - about what happened following Solo's "I would have made those saves" comments comes, I think, from "Hard Return," the profile that Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl wrote on Solo in the year following her dismissal from the team. That piece painted a picture of the culture of the USWNT as one not that far removed from the high school locker room. And it painted a picture of Solo as someone who'd been Mean Girls'd out of the team, in some ways simply for refusing to click "run" on the us_pr_robots.exe file that had been surreptitiously downloaded into her brain as she slept one night.

Solo, of course, was eventually welcomed back to the USWNT, and with the World Cup squarely in the rearview mirror, the team went on to win gold the following summer in Beijing. Solo was in goal for all six of the U.S.'s games.

By the time we got to the domestic violence incident in 2014, Solo had already become at least half the pariah we know her as now. The 2007 comments had long ago gone from a one-time thing to just part of who Hope Solo was. Need a hot take or a Twitter rant? Solo was the go-to, unafraid to speak out about wrongs, perceived or real.

Three years post-"I would have made those saves," Solo was plying her trade as a goalkeeper for the Atlanta Beat. Atlanta was a bad team in a league a year away from completely self-destructing.

WPS had, from the very beginning, pushed this newfangled thing called social media. If they were going to gain any relevance, it was going to start here, where fans could get a peek into the daily lives of professional athletes in 140 characters or less. Mostly, WPS players used Twitter in exactly the kind of uninteresting way you'd expect them to. Tweets about good practices or hoping for better results next week, TwitPics of team meals, Saturday morning commentary about their favorite Premier League teams, words of support for their respective countries in the World Cup.

Hope Solo though, discovered that she could use Twitter for something else. Far removed from the watchful eyes and too firm grip of U.S. Soccer's PR wing, Solo took to Twitter to offer her thoughts on Things. I can't link to any of it now, of course, because her Twitter account has long since been sanitized, but I swear to you, it happened. More than once.

Solo hit peak Twitter Rant on a September night in 2010. Then, Solo's Atlanta Beat had just lost its final game of the season to a Washington Freedom team that was fighting for its playoff life. That night, Solo fired off Twitter missives that included accusations that the league had in some way conspired with the refs to insure the Freedom would make the playoffs, before ending the rant by declaring that she was "done playing in a league where the game is no longer in control of the players." She continued it the next morning with five more tweets that included a shot at the Freedom's Digital Media and Public Relations Manager, a few more at the refs, and by again implying that the game had been in some way fixed in Washington's favor.

WPS was quick to discipline Solo for her digital escapade, fining her $2,500, suspending her for one game and sentencing her to eight hours of community service.

I, admittedly, kind of liked it. Not the part where she called out a member of another team's staff, but all the rest. I liked that Solo cared enough to get mad when so many of her fellow national team teammates seemed to just be going through the motions for their WPS teams. I liked that however inelegantly she may have put it, it was ultimately coming from a place where she wanted the league to better, professional, legitimate. I liked that Hope Solo, still, was refusing to give to cookie cutter answers or behave The Way She Was Supposed To, the way a role model and a girl next door is supposed to. I liked that Hope Solo was willing to treat women's soccer as just a professional sport, and one that wouldn't - or shouldn't - be threatened by outspokenness.

Solo wasn't wholesome the way the USWNT, and women athletes in general, are too often portrayed. She just was.

In Shut Up and Sing, the 2006 documentary that followed the Dixie Chicks in the wake of Natalie Maines' comments from a London stage during the peak of the U.S.'s invasion of Iraq that they were "ashamed the President of the United States was from Texas," a radio host tells the camera "I wish they would just shut up and sing. About the time things start dying down, somebody else says something stupid and gets everybody all riled up again." That attitude, both the shut up and sing - or in Solo's case, play - and the one where somebody says - or does - something stupid as soon as things calm down, has been what it's like to live in a soccer world that includes Hope Solo.

Just as things had finally quieted down following Solo's arrest, news broke that her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, had been arrested for DUI in California. The incident occurred during a USWNT camp, Stevens was allegedly driving a U.S. Soccer van without permission, and his passenger, Solo, had reportedly become belligerent with the cops. U.S. Soccer quickly suspended her for 30 days.

Six months later, Solo was back with the USWNT, playing in the opening game of the 2015 World Cup.

All of this is what makes U.S. Soccer's announcement last week that they'd suspended Solo for six months and terminated her USWNT contract all the more egregious. When Solo was arrested in 2014, or when Stevens was arrested last year and with whatever part Solo played in that incident, U.S. Soccer still needed her. Then, the team was preparing for the World Cup, or on the brink of playing in it. Now, there is nothing. Now, we are three years from the next major tournament. Now, Hope Solo is expendable.

It's also more egregious because what got Solo - and us - here is far from the worst thing she's done. It's probably not even the worst thing she's done this year.

What Solo did was this: she called Sweden "cowards" following the U.S.'s loss in the Olympic quarterfinals last month. "We played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly, firmly believe that," was, more specifically, what Hope Solo said.

To be clear, I think this is a bad comment. It's stupid and really, it doesn't even make sense. Yes, Sweden played an ugly, defensive game against the U.S., but they also played the one they needed to to win. If anything, the decision to play ugly and defensive in an incredibly high profile game is kind of brave. Maybe it's not noble or in the true spirit of the sport or whatever that thing is, but neither is dribbling into the corner when you've got the lead and there's not much time left, or taking the slow walk to the sideline when you've been subbed off, or, you know, changing your gloves in the middle of a penalty shootout.

Hope Solo isn't the first USWNT player to make a bad comment, either, although the way she's been punished for it, it's quite possible U.S. Soccer has done some good work in making sure that she's the last. Remember when Abby Wambach went on The Bill Simmons Podcast, called for Jurgen Klinsmann to be fired, and said she didn't believe in bringing in "foreign guys"? Mostly, we dismissed this strange borderline xenophobia kind of the way my parents used to dismiss the casual racist language my grandmother would use to describe my cousins' new Jamaican nanny or the young couple that recently moved into her otherwise white, Jewish Bergen County suburb: because she was A Person From a Different Time.

Right after Wambach said that - like that day - we celebrated her in her final USWNT game, giving her a proper sendoff, and one very much on her own terms.

Really, bad comments are kind of not that unusual a thing for professional athletes in general. Double if it's after a tough loss, triple if that tough loss comes in a big game, quadruple if it's a tough loss in a big game and you're also carrying the weight of your sport's relevance and long-term success squarely on the collective shoulders that make up your team.

There is also this, though: the USWNT is a group of elite athletes, who also happen to be women. And because they happen to be women, they have to be that first, always. Second, they are role models. Third, girls next door. Somewhere way down the list, probably after "dog owner," "reads books," "can drive" or "has ears," you will find "athlete." Hope Solo, just by being Hope Solo, living in the world that is Hope Solo's, has long been the antithesis of that.

It's not even that Solo, usually, is particularly outspoken. It's that somewhere we started to expect, or require, a level of decorum from Women Who Happen To Be Athletes that we don't from their male counterparts. That expectation makes Solo seem as crazy as a New York City street preacher when she goes even a little off script or behaves in a way that's just how most regular humans do life, every day. That she is imperfect and maybe slightly broken and also a woman athlete though? It makes Solo rare in the world of women's sports, and even rarer in the world of women's soccer, where our collective sensibilities have been deemed so fragile that any minor disruption or diversion from the norm might send us into an unending tailspin. And it makes her some kind of rogue threat lurking there, ready to corrupt the children that pile into the stands and scream with all the decibel force of a Metallica concert.

But the truth is this: our sensibilities are not that fragile. We, as sports fans, are not that fragile. And sometimes athletes just aren't where we should be looking to find role models (and that idea in itself, that being a role model is part of the deal just because you are a woman and an athlete, is kind of ridiculous and gross, too).

Soccer on the whole has started to grow from fringe sport towards mainstream success, and while women's soccer isn't quite there yet, it has started to at least grow up. That U.S. Soccer had such an averse reaction to Solo's comments speaks to a failure to acknowledge that that goes far beyond doing a big thing badly.

Part of Solo's suspension, and the timing of it, of course, is that it isn't so much about her specific comments following the loss to Sweden as it is a cumulative thing. But mostly, that only further illustrates just how expendable U.S. Soccer really does find Solo now. It also paints a picture of the USSF as kind of, well, cowardly. That all this bad behavior mattered so much, was such a great threat to this governing body's moral core, that they were willing to do...nothing.

Well, at least until they didn't need her anymore. That's how you do a big thing badly, and that's how badly U.S. Soccer has done this big thing.