Five-ring Circus

“I Feel Bad 4 Our Fans That Have 2 Push Mute”

What Hope Solo’s war of words with player-turned-broadcaster Brandi Chastain reveals about the state of women’s soccer.

Solo Hope and Brandi Chastain.
Hope Solo and Brandi Chastain

Photographs by Stanley Chou/Getty Images; Michael Buckner/Getty Images.

The U.S. women’s soccer team won its first two games at the Olympics convincingly: 4-2 over France and 3-0 over Colombia. Immediately after the second game, possibly from the locker room or the team bus, goalkeeper Hope Solo went on a Twitter rant against NBC commentator and women’s soccer legend Brandi Chastain. Solo told Chastain to “lay off commentating about defending … until you get more educated,” adding that “the game has changed from a decade ago.” Solo also said she feels “bad 4 our fans that have 2 push mute.”

Though this may seem like little more than a petty dispute between a contemporary star and a former great, Solo’s Twitter outburst is actually quite revealing. Her angry words tell us a lot about where women’s soccer is today, and where it still needs to go.

The American goalkeeper’s dissatisfaction with one of U.S. soccer’s foremothers first surfaced in January. In Olympic qualifying, the United States thrashed the Dominican Republic and Guatemala by a combined 27-0. During those blowouts, Chastain consistently criticized the Americans for small mistakes. Solo unsheathed her Twitter sword: “hey brandi did you find anything positive in our game? Curious minds over here …”

Then, earlier this month, after Solo tested positive for a banned substance (a diuretic contained in a prescription drug she said she took for “pre-menstrual reasons”), Chastain took a measured dig. “I was disappointed that it came up because, for as careful as I think everybody is, I think we could all go without some medication for a short amount of time and not suffer too greatly,” the player-turned-broadcaster told the website Larry Brown Sports.

Now, at the Olympics, Chastain has resumed her negative patter. She’s carped about minor things, like the U.S. team’s failure to control the ball and chew up clock at the end of both games. She’s been especially critical of the American defense, singling out Rachel Buehler. Justified? Eh, maybe, a little, though it’s hard to mount much of a case when the top-ranked United States dominates lesser opponents. After a terrible start, the Americans scored four straight against France. Against Colombia, they allowed just one shot on goal.

Chastain is a work in progress as an announcer. Like other inexperienced (or incompetent) analysts, she favors the “should have” approach to commentary, telling viewers what a player should have done rather than explaining what happened and why. She’s at home in the fantasyland of perfect play imagined by ex-jock announcers with amnesia about their own experiences, and their own shortcomings.

In the small, tight world of U.S. women’s soccer, the safest approach would be for Chastain to overpraise her successors—to treat the national team as a social cause, the way her teams were treated, rather than as world-class competitors who should be held to the highest standards. That’s what Solo seems to want. Chastain, she wrote, “should be helping 2 grow the sport.” Regardless of whether Chastain’s critiques have been excessive, by analyzing the game seriously and candidly, she’s not only helping women’s soccer to grow, but also to grow up. “I’m here to do my job, which is to be an honest and objective analyst at the Olympics,” Chastain said Sunday.

So what’s Solo’s problem? She can’t really believe that Chastain, who played in 192 international games and famously scored that Women’s World Cup-winning penalty kick in 1999 (tearing off her shirt afterward), is insufficiently “educated” about soccer. Or that Chastain’s job as a commentator is to “represent” the U.S. team. No, I think this is about other issues: the complicated relationship between two generations of American women’s soccer players and the ways women athletes respond to one another.

The current national team is, understandably, sick of the so-called ’99ers, the Chastain/Mia Hamm/Julie Foudy teams that have been endlessly canonized. “That’s all we’ve ever heard about,” Solo griped to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl during last summer’s World Cup in Germany. “And we all know that they paved the way. But at some point in time you have to let go and build new stories and new names to the game.”

But that’s exactly what’s happened. After her team’s thrilling run and heartbreaking championship-game loss at that tournament, Solo became a media star. She appeared on a string of talk shows; signed sponsorship deals with Gatorade, BlackBerry, Electronic Arts, and others worth a reported seven figures; and appeared (and bitched about the judging) on Dancing With the Stars. Her autobiography, Solo: A Memoir of Hope, will be released in a couple of weeks.

Most athletes—particularly ones who, like Solo, become the face of their sport—learn to brush off criticism, whether from commentators or icons. This year’s basketball Dream Team, for instance, doesn’t seem at all threatened by the trailblazing 1992 model, which has been celebrating its collective self for months in a way the 1999 women’s soccer team never has. So what was Kobe Bryant’s response to all the self-love? We’d beat those guys, an assertion that put Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan on the defensive.

But instead of pulling a Kobe and saying her team could beat the ’99ers—which they certainly could; the player pool is deeper today and the international competition much tougher—Solo whined that a TV commentator made it impossible for “our fans 2 enjoy the spirit of the olympics.”

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage met with Solo on Sunday but says the goalkeeper will not be disciplined. “We had a conversation: If you look at the women’s national team, what do you want (people) to see? What do you want them to hear?” the coach explained to reporters. “And that’s where we do have a choice—as players, coaches, staff, the way we respond to certain things.”

Let’s hope Sundhage told her to think before she tweets—that her comments made the team, women’s soccer, and women athletes generally, look bad. Like me, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins sees gender at play here, and she doesn’t like it. “What is this curious rule that says all female athletes are supposed to be homers for life, unquestioning backers of their team and gender, as opposed to independent-minded professionals?” Jenkins wrote in a column posted Sunday night.

A couple of years ago, I spent time with University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, who has won 20 NCAA titles and who also coached the national team in its early days, from 1986 to 1994. The cerebral Dorrance owes much of his success to identifying, understanding, and coaching to differences between men and women. “Women,” he told me then, “have the toxic combination of having incredibly high standards for each other and being amazingly sensitive at the same time.”

That sums up the Solo/Chastain kerfuffle pretty well.