Hope Solo probably shouldn’t be the US Soccer president, but it’s good that she’s running

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To the average fan of US Soccer, the job of president is defined primarily by big decisions on high profile issues. Who should be the head coach? How should money be spent? How should resources be collected?

But the reality is that the job is far more prosaic than these big decisions. The president is not a dictator who can simply set policy as she wishes, nor does she necessarily exert significant influence over the Board of Directors or the federation as a whole. Given the diversity of interests at stake in the membership of these groups, the day-to-day job of president is primarily a matter of managing factions, massaging egos, and facilitating coalitions. Those are all things that Sunil Gulati – the retiring president – did well. And whether or not you like the ultimate results, there’s no denying that Gulati was effective at the job.

Now, with news that Hope Solo has put herself into the race to become Gulati’s replacement, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the job, and her quality as a candidate for the position.

Being a good president means more than having good ideas

In my day job as a political scientist, we tend to be quite skeptical of ‘message’ campaigns. According to their standard-bearers, simply winning the election will create a bank of ‘political capital,’ which will help drive the agenda through. But it turns out that winning elections is often the easiest part of the job. When the electorate is dissatisfied, the promise of ‘change’ is powerful. But once decisions are being taken about resource allocation, vested interests settle into their trenches, and defend their fiefdoms with equal doses of aggression and patience. A charismatic message can certainly win votes, but when the rubber hits the road, things get much trickier.

None of this means that the president plays no role in setting overall strategic objectives. It’s more to say that broad policy goals often falter on lack of successful management. Weak executives make for weak policy – something just as true for administrative entities like US Soccer as it is for political entities like the United States federal government.

Ultimately, this means that any choice for president of US Soccer should pass three distinct tests.

  • First, what is their strategic vision? What would they seek to accomplish in their tenure? Where would the resources go? How would the finances work? What goals would they set? What priorities would they outline?
  • Second, can they outline a plausible pathway for achieving those objectives? How would the finances work? Why would relevant parties be willing to buy in? Do they have contingency plans where things inevitably go off track?
  • Third, do they have the skills to actually succeed at managing time, resources, and interests? Can they build coalitions? Do they have good social networks, or can they create them? Will people lead where they follow?

The core point here: having a powerful message is only one part of the equation. It’s an important part, to be sure, and a candidate can make a big difference even if they don’t offer anything more. Simply putting issues on the table may force other candidates to speak to them or even shift their position in order to head off the threat from the challenger. This is the classic role of the ‘protest’ candidate: there to make a point, not necessarily to win. But protest candidates rarely win, and for good reason. Failure to fill in the details in these second and third is a powerful signal that someone might be good for the race without necessarily being good for the job.

Solo is a better candidate than it might seem, but is that enough?

Taking that as a framework of a viable campaign, where does Solo fit?

On the first test, she makes for a strong and important candidate. Her statement announcing her candidacy was powerful, and spoke to a range of interests that have been overlooked by the other candidates. In her time as a player, Solo was forthright and aggressive about the need for reform in US Soccer, and she makes an excellent standard-bearer for that message now.

The question is how far she can push the issues. After all, everyone is already willing to sign up for platitudes like ‘equal pay’ and ‘fairness.’ But her announcement went into much more detail, discussing the problems with elite youth clubs, with profit-driven incentive structures, with the secretive role of Soccer United Marketing (SUM) at the heart of US Soccer, and with gender equality. That sort of detail is critical, and suggests that Solo is serious, at least on this level. It also shows why having someone like her in the race is critical—to call attention to issues that otherwise might be swept under the rug by the rest of the field.

But this is where things get trickier. On the second prong—filling in the details about how to produce the desired change—we haven’t seen much so far. That said, we are still early in the process, and there’s some possibility that a more complete picture could emerge. It is never a good idea to underestimate Hope Solo. We know that was true on the field, but her efforts behind the scenes organizing the team’s collective action campaign on pay equality suggests that she is more than capable of carrying that same level of determination and focus into the management side of things.

Certainly, the work Solo had to do to capitalize on her fame and talent compares favorably to the efforts of male players like Wynalda and Martino—who were provided with a far more established infrastructure.

Only time will tell here, and the proof will ultimately be in the pudding, but there’s absolutely no reason to dismiss Solo’s case ex ante. At a bare minimum, she deserves the same level of respect accorded to other candidates—few of whom have done much to establish their bona fides on this front.

Moreover, there is a case to be made for focusing significantly more attention on the big picture questions. The president has most control over the direction of the agenda, and increasingly less control as the details grow more fine-grained. Gulati has been a hands-on president, but his successor might reasonably chose a less directly involved approach—setting broad policy objectives while handing over day-to-day responsibilities to a cadre of bureaucrats.

Here, though, is where the case for Solo becomes quite rocky. The third leg of the table—capability to organize, manage, collaborate, and enable—is where her body of work ceases to be an advantage and becomes a liability. No one doubts her ability to fight for her goals. But the job of president requires a great deal of subtlety in the application of force.

There is more than one way to lead an organization, but the more diverse the interests involved, the harder they will be to bulldoze. US Soccer is extremely diverse, and leading it effectively will take a great deal of personal sublimation. To be successful, the next president will need the full range of persuasive skills, particularly if he or she hopes to institute significant reforms. Those vested interests are likely to resist, and fighting them directly without building a broad and durable base of support is more than likely to end in disaster.

To say the least, Solo’s history on this front is hardly encouraging. She tends toward black and white views of issues, bluntness (to the point of abrasiveness), and a commitment to speaking the truth as she sees it regardless of potential consequences. These are admirable qualities in some circumstances, but rarely the mark of a successful leader.

Now, it is important to acknowledge the role that gender expectations play in this conversation. Solo is a controversial figure partly for reasons that are idiosyncratic and specific, but it’s impossible to fully disentangle her personal history from the larger context of a social landscape in which women are scrutinized far more heavily (and less generously) than men.

Nevertheless, as a player she experienced several run-ins with the law (a domestic violence charge as well as an incident in which her husband drove her in a team van while intoxicated), not to mention a suspension from the national team after her comments in the 2016 Olympics. These are not solely the product of unfair gender expectations.

Solo has a lot to prove, but don’t count her out just yet

We will learn a lot in the coming days, and that may help us better understand where Solo fits into this campaign. Already, Julie Foudy is reporting that Solo does not in fact have the necessary three nominations to become an official candidate. If that bears out, then this campaign will end almost as quickly as it began. If not, we will have a chance to follow her over the next few months as she makes her case, and responds to criticism.

There is no doubt that Solo’s presence in the race is a big deal. She is one of the most famous players in US Soccer’s history, a powerful advocate for equality and fairness, and a charismatic figure in her own way. The question is whether she can draw on those strengths and overcome her weaknesses. There is a lot of baggage in her record, and it will take serious effort to exhibit the grace, poise, and skill needed for the job.

At the moment, I remain skeptical. But I have also learned that it’s rarely a good idea to bet against Hope Solo. So I am excited to see what she has to offer.