Sports Nut

The Hope Solo Mistake

U.S. Soccer needed to get rid of its goalkeeper, but not like this.

Hope Solo #1 of United States looks on during the Women's Group G first round match between the United States and New Zealand during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Mineirao Stadium on August 3, 2016 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Hope Solo looks on during the first-round match between the United States and New Zealand during the 2016 Olympic Games on Aug. 3.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, U.S. Soccer suspended longtime U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo and terminated her contract with the women’s national team, possibly spelling the end of her international career. The decisions came nearly two weeks after Solo called Sweden’s players “a bunch of cowards” for their defensive tactics after that team’s surprise Olympic quarterfinal victory over the U.S. that eliminated the Americans from medal contention. Solo—an unapologetic boor, who, at 35, is likely nearing the end of her playing days—should have lost her job after that game, but not for her Sweden remarks. U.S. Soccer’s decision to use fairly innocuous comments as a pretext to do something they should have done anyways was a mistake and it’s already starting to backfire.

Let’s start with Solo’s history. U.S. Soccer didn’t suspend Solo in 2014 when she was arrested for allegedly attacking her half-sister and nephew. It didn’t suspend her when she blasted former U.S. player Brandi Chastain over mild criticisms of the team in 2012. It didn’t suspend her when she tore down fellow goalie Briana Scurry after the team lost in the 2007 World Cup semifinals. U.S. Soccer did suspend Solo last year, after her husband Jerramy Stevens was arrested for a DUI while driving a U.S. Soccer van with her in the vehicle. The length of that suspension? One month.

Considering everything she’s done in the past that’s barely garnered a slap on the wrist, a six-month suspension and the termination of her contract, all for a petty comment, seems excessive. No other athlete of any gender in any sport would get punished like that for a peevish, post-loss one-liner knocking an opponent’s tactics as morally weak. If every NBA player and coach who took a shot at the other team got suspended for six months, there would be only a handful of players left by the end of the playoffs. And while the Olympics may insist upon a higher level of sportsmanship—Olympic spirit, global cooperation and all that—Solo’s “classless” remark still ranks low on the overall scale of athlete trash talk.

Nonetheless, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati tried to explain the decision in a statement:

The comments by Hope Solo after the match against Sweden during the 2016 Olympics were unacceptable and do not meet the standard of conduct we require from our National Team players. Taking into consideration the past incidents involving Hope, as well as the private conversations we’ve had requiring her to conduct herself in a manner befitting a U.S. national team member, U.S. Soccer determined this is the appropriate disciplinary action.

As Gulati said, Solo’s dig at Sweden wasn’t the only reason for her punishment. But characterizing it as the pivotal misbehavior meriting her suspension is a thinly veiled excuse to get rid of a player who has repeatedly tarnished the team’s image and is no longer good enough to justify the trouble of cleaning up her public relations messes. After the U.S. lost to Sweden, I argued for the legitimate reasons that the U.S. team should part ways with Solo:

Solo, who recently recorded the 100th shutout of her career, nevertheless looked shaky in the Olympics, especially in the United States’ game against Colombia, in which she gave up one especially soft goal. She’ll be nearly 38 when the next World Cup rolls around. It’s hard to imagine her being the stopper in the net that the U.S. needs in 2019.

U.S. Soccer has always taken a pragmatic approach to the Solo problem: She helped the team win, so they kept her around. Now, those benefits and costs appear to have changed. After the recent departures of veteran players Abby Wambach, Shannon Boxx, Christie Rampone, and Lauren Holiday, the team is shifting toward younger players. In years past, the win-at-all-costs move was to keep Hope Solo on the roster. Now, if the U.S. wants to retake its place at the top of the soccer world, the most sensible move is to let her go.

Replacing Solo in net is the right decision, both for the team’s future success and its image. Everyone involved would have been better served, though, had U.S. Soccer phased her out over the coming months—citing the proper justification—instead of cutting her loose suddenly with a phony pretext. In fact, the abruptness—and seeming arbitrariness—of the decision raised questions about U.S. Soccer’s motives.

Solo is one of five USWNT players who filed a federal complaint against U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination back in March. Along with teammates Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Carli Lloyd, she has spoken out about the pay gap and unequal treatment between men’s team and women’s team players, especially since the team won the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup. U.S. Soccer has tried its best to downplay these complaints, but it had also been taking proactive steps against the team in a recent labor dispute and sued the team’s union back in February.

With this in mind, the soccer website Dirty Tackle proposed that “it seems that it’s at least possible that the federation is trying to silence one of the movement’s leaders and send a message to others players that dissenters will be eliminated at the first opportunity.” While this seems plausible, if U.S. Soccer had wanted to make an example of Solo for her views on equal pay for women, they could have done it before the Olympics when Solo made a series of ignorant and insensitive comments about the Zika virus in Brazil.

At the time, she posted photos of herself on social media wearing a mosquito-net hat and holding jugs of bug spray, captioned #Zikaproof. The photos went viral; again, Solo had embarrassed the team. U.S. Soccer, though, did nothing. Then Sweden upset the U.S., Brazilian fans booed and harassed Solo with “Zika” jeers the whole time, and she uttered the fateful coward line. U.S. Soccer did the math, realized that Solo was no longer the star she once was, and that her presence was doing more harm than good to the team’s image. So it doesn’t seem like retaliation for the wage discrimination suit is necessarily the game here, though that’s what people have been given the opportunity to think.

According to a Sports Illustrated report, Solo plans to appeal the suspension and the termination of her contract, with a representative for the U.S. women’s national team’s players association citing “a violation of Ms. Solo’s First Amendment rights.” Who knows if the U.S. Soccer’s poor handling of the situation opens the door for that appeal to be successful, but Solo definitely will have a public relations case to make that she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There are plenty of actual reasons to let Solo go, her jerkiness and age chief among them. But blowing out of proportion a case of name-calling in order to end a player’s career? That’s a cowardly move.