”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.”
That quote comes from US Soccer’s statement announcing that Hope Solo would be suspended from the USWNT for six months. The decision comes 12 days after Solo’s comments in the wake of the USA’s quarterfinal loss to Sweden at the Olympics, in which she called the Swedes “a bunch of cowards” for bunkering in and playing defense (a strategy which ultimately won them a silver medal). US Soccer president Sunil Gulati said Solo’s comments were “unacceptable and do not meet the standard of conduct we require from our National Team players.”
Gulati and US Soccer seem adamant that the punishment is primarily cumulative, and that the suspension is less about what Solo said and more of a “last straw” after years of PR (and HR) headaches. In effect, it’s not unlike a “make-up call,” where referees will come down hard on a foul later in the game to balance out a decision to go easy on an earlier incident. It’s a subtle way for referees to acknowledge that they, too, make mistakes.
But is that what’s really going on here?
The federation also voided Solo’s national team contract, which was due to expire in four months anyway, and per the terms of the CBA agreed to pay her three months’ severance. The decision only affects her standing with the national team; she’ll continue playing with the Seattle Reign (for now, at least), and US Soccer will continue to pick up the tab for her salary. She won’t be eligible to play for the USWNT until at least February, and even then, she’ll have to negotiate a new contract with the federation.
Given that she celebrated her 35th birthday shortly before departing for Rio, it’s entirely possible this is the end of her career with the USWNT.
Which is why the decision to suspend her for this long is so confusing. Given that her contract was up in four months, they could have simply dropped her from the team for “soccer reasons” and not re-signed her in January. The suspension is symbolic more than anything else. It’s clear that US Soccer was sending a message, but what message, exactly?
To put this in context: Cristiano Ronaldo made similarly dismissive comments about Iceland at Euro 2016 this summer and was not penalized. Clint Dempsey was suspended for six games and lost the USMNT captain’s armband for mouthing off to a referee during a US Open Cup match. As recently as this past weekend, Richard Chaplow received a two-game suspension for homophobic taunts against Robbie Rogers. Luis Suárez was suspended for four months for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the 2014 World Cup.
In other words: taken on its face, this decision doesn’t make any sense.
It’s possible this is a massive overreaction to Solo’s “coward” remarks. US Soccer insisted otherwise in their statement, but it could just be a face-saving maneuver. US Soccer may have felt they would face criticism for going overboard on such a nothing comment and sought to establish a context for their decision.
If this is indeed a cumulative punishment, the “last straw” in Solo’s ongoing difficulties with the USWNT, then it’s tacit acknowledgment US Soccer dropped the ball on her domestic violence case and the DUI incident with her husband Jerramy Stevens. The USSF tried its hardest to pretend the DV case wasn’t happening, while the DUI incident, for which key details are still being withheld, seemed light considering the severity of what supposedly happened. The 30-day suspension in early 2015 amounted to two international friendlies, and did not affect her place in the team heading into the Women’s World Cup that summer. If this is indeed a “make-up call” on the part of USSF, it’s both an excessive overreach AND an admission that they didn’t do enough last time.
There’s another possible reason for the Solo suspension, however,one that casts US Soccer in an unflattering light. Solo was one of five USWNT players who have been the most active in the ongoing wage discrimination scandal while agitating for a new, more equitable collective bargaining agreement. US Soccer have made some court filings in response to the WNT’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint that some consider excessive, but is in keeping with many employers who find themselves fighting with their own employees over compensation. A cynical observer might see Solo’s six-month suspension as US Soccer’s way of taking one of the major players in the wage discrimination fight off the board, and that the “coward” comment was just the excuse they were looking for.
This theory is not without its problems. For one, while maintaining an air of skepticism is important whentalking about American soccer, assuming bad faith on the part of major parties isn’t conducive to a healthy debate. This also gives US Soccer too much credit. Say what you will about Sunil Gulati, but the “evil mastermind” label doesn’t really fit him.
And of course, there are bigger questions about different standards, how women athletes have to conform to behavioral norms that their male colleagues don’t always have to. Invariably her domestic violence incident will be brought up, and she absolutely should’ve been held accountable for that (just as male athletes should but often aren’t). Failing to deal with that incident and then overreacting to a relative non-issue nearly two years later is a failure of leadership and sets a disturbing precedent, not just for the USWNT but for women athletes generally. It also sends a chilling message to the others fighting the good fight for equal pay for the USWNT: “we can bury you if we want to.”
In the end, Hope Solo has been women’s soccer problematic fave for years. Some criticism aimed at her is absolutely justified, and the fact that she was never properly held accountable for the domestic violence incident is a black stain on the sport. But there’s always been a rather ugly undercurrent to some of the antagonism she faces. Lest we forget, her complaints in 2010 that rival fans were hurling racist abuse at her teammates went unaddressed, but a snarky comment about referees and the league she played in at the time earned her a fine and a suspension.
Whatever the reason, and whatever you may think of Hope Solo, this is a suspicious and ignominious way to potentially end the career of one of the most accomplished goalkeepers in the history of the sport. Of any gender. There are many who support the suspension decision to suspend her, and it’s worth asking those people whether they really believe that “cowards” remark is really worth six months on the shelf and possibly the end of a career, or if they’re just glad they finally got to nail her for something.