UPDATED 1/6/18 12 PM ET: USSF’s spokesperson has further clarified their statement for this article. Sunil Gulati was in “a few” meetings, not just one. Solo’s interview was recorded before she announced her candidacy for president.
USSF presidential candidate Hope Solo went on the “Why I’m Not...” podcast to talk about her struggles coming up through youth soccer and trying to find a place as a pro, her dismissal from the US women’s national team, their struggles with the federation over an equitable collective bargaining agreement, sexual harassment in soccer, and the sexism that female athletes face in general.
There were some interesting takeaways from this interview, although she doesn’t really go into her platform for USSF president. What the interview does do is give listeners a little bit of insight into her thought process and how she feels about the federation, her former teammates, and the state of women’s sports in general. Will this help inform voters in the election? Perhaps, depending on their reasons for voting, whether it’s to institute reform, get a bigger slice of the USSF pie, or try to maintain the status quo. But mostly it just helps paint a clearer picture of Solo’s opinions on bigger social issues, particularly concerning gender discrimination.
First, Solo is dissatisfied with the most recent CBA the WNT agreed on with the federation. “Even if it is better, it’s still not equal,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s better, because if it’s a little bit better, you’re holding us back, because it’s going to take another four years to maybe get it right. So really we have to put our foot down from day one and say no more.”
She has a point about what it really takes for labor to stand up to management, and the risks that go hand in hand with threatening a work stoppage. Solo talks about how the team discussed going on strike, but how it ultimately fell apart, due in part to fear.
Solo specifically says that Sunil Gulati, Dan Flynn, and the USSF board of directors threatened the USWNT with fewer scheduled games in retaliation if the team requested higher pay (you can listen to that starting around 40:20 on the podcast). Fewer games would affect the players’ ability to earn bonuses, as well as impact things like their revenue and ticket sales, which would weaken their ability to argue about how much they contribute financially to the federation. She also says that the federation threatened to take away the players’ health insurance, although it is fairly common and not always unlawful for unionized employees to lose employer-sponsored health coverage in the event of a strike. Teammates, especially those with children, were understandably cautious about such a consequence.
However, a spokesperson for US Soccer said of Solo’s allegations re: threats of scheduling fewer games as retaliation, “Her statement is 100 percent untrue.” Flynn was never in the room for CBA negotiations and Gulati was present for “a few” meetings; USSF legal counsel and other federation personnel handled the rest.
Solo also discusses the effects of sexism on female athletes, notably the way “sex sells” can influence which female athletes become popular and which don’t. She has another point here too, that for many female athletes, social and cultural conditioning to consume women’s looks first and abilities second (or third or not at all) affects their ability to earn a living. Women considered conventionally attractive may find financial success despite their relative lack of athletic ability while great athletes who are nevertheless not generally considered attractive may remain relatively obscure. But Solo phrased it like this as she described Carli Lloyd, whom she called the “best footballer presently in the world.”
“And people don’t even know [Carli’s] name. You know who they know? Alex Morgan. Alex Morgan hasn’t scored as many goals as Carli, as many impactful goals. Hasn’t ever really shown up the way Carli has in major, major, major tournaments. And you wonder - Carli has done everything for the game. She’s passionate, she’s a competitive athlete, she’s a leader, but people don’t give her that respect. And why? Because she doesn’t wear makeup on the field, because she doesn’t get false eyelashes, because she doesn’t have a boob job, because she doesn’t do photo shoots naked. Honestly, that’s what she has to balance with competing for endorsements with her teammates.”
It’s a fair point that Morgan has fewer goals than Lloyd, 80 to Lloyd’s 98, although she also has 134 caps to Lloyd’s 246 for a higher scoring rate of 0.6 goals per cap to Lloyd’s 0.4. And Lloyd does have more memorable big game moments in Olympics and World Cups, although Morgan fans will probably be quick to point out her 2012 Olympic semifinal header against Canada.
But there’s a larger discussion to be had here - one which Solo didn’t or wasn’t able to dig into on the podcast - in that there is a tension between acknowledging that there are external cultural pressures that push women to think they must appear made up at all times versus respecting a woman’s agency in presenting herself whatever way she wants. Yes, some female players wear makeup. Some don’t. Perhaps they simply like to look their best. Perhaps they do feel pressure to always look “marketable” in spite of their personal preferences.
The answer is not to set up a dichotomy between an example of a “good” female athlete and a “bad” or “superficial” one. A better approach is to attack people’s expectations for women, both on and off the field, and to Solo’s credit she partially addresses that elsewhere in the podcast when she discusses negative attitudes towards woman acting competitive and physically aggressive. But that thinking needs to extend to discussion of her own former teammates and how and why they decide to present themselves, especially in someone who is running to be president of those players’ controlling federation.
You can listen to the entire podcast here.