In an unexpected announcement Wednesday afternoon, US Soccer revealed that long-time goalkeeper Hope Solo had been suspended for six months after comments made regarding the playing of Sweden in the quarterfinal loss in Brasilia on August 12. Solo’s comments, widely reported as variants on “Hope Solo Calls Sweden Cowards,” were, in context, much less offensive than the media or casual observers wanted to believe. But the Federation apparently disagreed, referring them as “conduct that is counter to the organization’s principles” in the official statement.
Asked her thoughts on the loss by Grant Wahl, Solo said that she believed the US played a “courageous game,” referring to the team’s many attacks on goal, but suggested that Sweden’s defensive strategy was representative of their opponent’s acknowledgement of their inferior offensive skills when faced with Fifa’s top ranked women’s team. But it’s so much easier to boil down a good point (with a questionable choice of word) to a biting headline than to engage into the tactical discussion that Solo wanted.
Let me be clear–I do not excuse Hope Solo’s comment. If I were in her position, I hope that I would not have used the word “coward.” But at the same time, her position was not exactly wrong–Sweden’s defensive tactics worked. But they worked at the cost of their own offensive opportunities, and when they finally encountered a team their defense couldn’t stymie in Silvia Neid’s German squad, they did not possess the offensive mind necessary to win the Gold medal game.
So despite the outrage displayed by media heads–including ex-USWNT player Julie Foudy for NBC–an immediate censure from the USSF, and, later, criticism from fellow USWNT teammates, Solo’s comments were not inherently offensive in the way they were portrayed and disseminated. When questioned by the media, Swedish player Lotta Schelin made a statement insisting that the comment was made in the heat of the moment, and that their personal relationship remains positive and friendly. Kosovare Asllani concurred, stating that while Solo should apologize, she should be allowed to speak her mind, and acknowledged that sometimes a person says more than they mean. And Pia Sundhage, former USWNT coach and current coach of the Swedish WNT, laughed Solo’s words off, saying, famously now, “I’m going to Rio, she’s going home.”
The issue today with the Federation’s response to Solo’s comments–a six-month suspension and, as reported by Grant Wahl, the termination of her National Team contract–however, is that such a decision, in this age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, does not occur in a vacuum. This comes in the wake of months of unrest between the players and US Soccer regarding the imbalance in compensation between the men’s and women’s teams, including an EEOC lawsuit with Solo’s name on it. It comes after increasing concerns regarding the safety and treatment of players in the NWSL, including the conditions of fields and training equipment, and the poverty level at which many of the league’s players live near.
And it occurs in a moment when an Olympic athlete can egregiously lie about events that occurred–making a false report to the police about being held up at gunpoint–and be escorted safely away to the United States, given a Primetime interview, and fielding a request to join the next season of Dancing With the Stars. In the light of all this, hearing that Solo’s off-hand remarks have effectively ended her career with the USWNT is not only disheartening, but discouraging.
For some, outright infuriating.
Because Hope Solo is not the only soccer player in the US system whose conduct has come under review by the USSF. Nor is she the only player who has made comments that could be considered to be counter to the principles of the organization. But, in these other cases, the disciplinary action taken by the Federation has been much milder.
Zero action was taken for comments made by Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya on the subject of former USWNT member Abby Wambach’s suspected DUI earlier this year, despite the fact that their tweets targeted both Wambach and then-current USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo, referencing Wambach’s statements about dual-nationality players on the USMNT and a 2015 DUI incident in which Solo’s husband Jerramy Stevens was driving a team van while under the influence (and for which Solo was suspended from the USWNT for 30 days).
Altidore, in addition, is also known for his sexist comments toward fellow US soccer star Alex Morgan. Comments which, considering the fact that they are colleagues, cross over into the realm of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.
Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, on the other hand, were each suspended in 2015 when their conduct on the field for their club teams threatened the safety of the referee. In a US Open Cup game on June 16, 2015, Dempsey approached the referee after a controversial call, took his notebook, and ripped it up. This earned him a three game suspension from his MLS team and, eventually, a six game (or two-year) suspension from US Open Cup play by the US Open Cup Adjudication and Discipline Panel. Dempsey’s MLS suspension, however, was short enough that he was able to compete with the USMNT in both the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup that same summer and the 2016 Copa America Centenario. And, as Ethan Swenson pointed out in an article for Sounder At Heart, the USSF could penalized him with a suspension of at least three months on their own, finding him guilty of violating US Soccer’s policy regarding threats and violence against referee personnel. Of course, that might have jeopardized the USMNT’s performance in their tournament play, considering the fact that Dempsey is one of their headline players.
The charge against Jones of “making contact with a referee” earned him a six match suspension from his MLS team in October 2015, a suspension that also prevented him from playing in other soccer competition or tournaments while it was in effect.
The misconduct involved Jones putting his hands on the referee multiple times, upset at a call that had awarded a penalty kick against his team. Any intentional threat or assault against a referee is punishable by a mandatory six game suspension according to USSF policy and bylaws, while a three game suspension is mandatory for milder misconduct, including “verbal and nonverbal communication which […] implies or directly threatens physical harm” to any of the referee staff. Unlike Dempsey’s suspension, which did not keep him from National Team duty, Jones’s prevented him from playing in the USMNT’s two World Cup qualifiers in March of this year.
And in the larger world of soccer, beyond the USSF, there are more chilling offenses that have received far less attention and were certainly penalized to a lesser extent than Hope Solo’s post-game comments.
There is John Terry, for example, of the English Men’s National Team and Chelsea FC. Terry has been accused of misconduct on and off the field–including drunkenly accosting American tourists at an airport immediately after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. But it’s the accusations of racism against Terry that found him suspended for four games and removed as Captain by England’s Football Association in 2012.
Luis Suarez has also been held accountable for racist comments on the field. Specifically for his comments toward Patrice Evra in 2011, where he was suspended for eight games for his comments. “I never asked for Evra’s forgiveness,” Suarez wrote in his memoir, Crossing the Line, “because I felt I had done him no wrong.” But Suarez is also the same player whose Wikipedia article has to number his biting incidents in order to keep them straight. An Uruguayan National Team player who was traded to Barcelona from Liverpool in 2014, he has been disciplined for biting opponents during matches a total of three times. “I know biting appalls a lot of people, but it’s relatively harmless,” Suarez wrote, seemingly unaware of why he was sentenced to a seven game suspension for the first incident and a ten game suspension for the second. For the third, the biting of Italian player Giorgio Chiellini in the 2014 World Cup, he was given a four month suspension by Fifa that forbade him from stepping foot into a stadium, much less practicing or training with his teams.
What, one might ask after reading about Suarez and his habit of biting people, is misconduct worthy of having one’s contract terminated?
Until yesterday, I thought the line was set fairly high. As in the case of Romeo Parkes, Jamaican international and member of the USL Pittsburgh Riverhounds, whose contract with the club was terminated in May 2016 after he kicked Karl Ouimette, New York Red Bulls II player, in the back after Ouimette received a red card and was sent off the field. The owner of the Riverhounds released a statement indicating that the player’s conduct was “not representative of what our organization and its Academy stands for in regards to helping promote and grow this sport,” and Parkes was immediately suspended by the USL, a suspension that was later extended worldwide until late October by Fifa, preventing him from joining the Jamaican team in their Copa America Centenario play this past summer.
What do all these examples have to do with Hope Solo and the punishment handed down by US Soccer yesterday?
I should think it’s obvious.
Look, I’m not saying that these male players deserved more or less in terms of punishment for their actions, but I am saying that there is a double standard in the way misconduct of male players is handled when compared to misconduct of female players. I am saying that Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya are allowed to speak their minds, but Hope Solo has to watch what she says. I’m saying that Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones can threaten and intimidate referees, but Hope Solo’s words are considered too damaging to allow her to wear the US kit. I’m saying that Luis Suarez and Romeo Parkes can cause physical harm to their opponents but receive minor suspensions, or terminations from their 3rd-tier club with only a temporary ban on their international play, but Hope Solo’s mere presence on the National Team is dangerous to the philosophy and principles of the USSF.
I’m saying that Hope Solo’s six month suspension and termination are at odds with the USSF’s own bylaws and policy manual, which make no claims about player misconduct beyond what receiving yellow or red cards during a match means for their upcoming play, or what the consequences for harming or threatening a referee will be (and in the case of Dempsey–even when they apply that standard they do so inconsistently). I’m saying that there is no official policy on “conduct that is counter to the organization’s principles,” and certainly not one that, lacking transparency, appears to penalize Solo at a much higher rate than her male colleagues.
Finally, let me leave you with this.
During the 2016 Euros in France this past summer, Cristiano Ronaldo exited a rough 1-1 draw with the underdog Iceland National Team with some harsh comments about the opponent that Portugal had been expected to thrash:
“Iceland didn’t try anything,” Ronaldo said, “They were just defend, defend, defend and playing on the counterattack. It was a lucky night for them. We should have three points but we are OK. […] When they don’t try to play and just defend, defend, defend, this in my opinion shows a small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition.”
But in the end, Ronaldo and Portugal took home the Euro Cup. And Madeira announced that it will rename their international airport in his honor.
Hope Solo got a tersely written letter from her Federation.