soccer

Hope Solo is unique because …

… there simply isn’t anyone like her.

Obvious statement, isn’t it? It’s the very definition of the word “unique.” She’s an individual.

But in her case, when she’s in the news, we always have a confluence of issues that make it difficult to compare her to any other athlete. And they’re coming up again now that she has been suspended in the wake of her husband’s DUI arrest and the complex situation around it. Read the ESPN story with Julie Foudy’s insider take on what led to the suspension. Elsewhere, I’ve heard the suspension compared to a “persistent infringement” yellow card — an accumulation of questionable decisions.

But even if you agree with the suspension, which seems to be the majority view, you can find yourself in a fiery dispute.

The issues that make a perfect storm around Solo news include:

She’s an occasionally famous athlete: If you’re not a women’s soccer diehard, you may know who Hope Solo is, but you don’t follow her from week to week. She’s in the spotlight at the Olympics and the World Cup. Or sometimes in a magazine shoot. Or in a controversy.

Olympic athletes are the same way. We pay more attention to Tiger Woods getting a tooth knocked out than we do to the reason he was there, Lindsey Vonn setting the record for World Cup wins. If Tiger hadn’t shown up, a lot of people wouldn’t know what Vonn did, even though it’s one of the most impressive feats an Olympic athlete can achieve.

So in this sense, Solo is like some athletes but not like those in sports that are covered in “mainstream” media throughout their competitive seasons and in the offseason.

Her background is different from that of most teammates: That’s a major theme of her memoir. Women’s soccer players typically have comfortable childhoods. She didn’t. In this sense, she’s more like a typical NFL or NBA athlete, whose triumphs over adversity are commonly told.

So that’s two items we’ve considered. One makes her similar to a sporadically covered Olympic athlete. One makes her similar to NFL and NBA athletes. Already, we’re talking about an unusual person.

The women’s soccer community has a chip on its shoulder: Or several. And rightly so. A lot of things have gone wrong in women’s soccer over the years. Two leagues have collapsed, and not even for the same reasons. The last season of WPS was a quagmire of legal action and bizarre incidents that killed any momentum from the 2011 World Cup. Women’s soccer fans can be defensive, sometimes mistrusting perceived outsiders. I’m not judging here — it’s understandable. I feel that way myself at times. I point it out just because it adds to the emotion when a Solo story makes the news.

She has been controversial for a long time: Here, one of the closest analogues would be Allen Iverson, a talented basketball player remembered mostly for his “practice?” press conference and his legal and financial woes (ironically chronicled here by Kate Fagan, one of the participants in last night’s Twitter disagreements). Start with the 2007 incident in which she ripped her coach’s decision in a way that also insulted (intentionally or not) Briana Scurry, then add various Twitter rants (pity her old tweets all disappeared), then add the incident just before a wedding few people expected (to a man with a serious criminal record), then add her recent family fight. Charges in the latter were dropped, and we’ll never really know what happened.

She wrote a controversial book to which most people involved didn’t respond: Consider Tim Howard’s recent memoir and his claim that Brad Friedel tried to block him from going to Manchester United. Friedel responded. Howard listened to Friedel and has edited his book. In Solo’s case, most of the people who come across badly in her book (with the exception of Greg Ryan disputing one specific incident) have remained silent. They’ve decided it’s not worth the effort to get into a back-and-forth dispute with Solo and her legions of fans.

(By the way, the “From the Back Cover” text at Amazon is still inaccurate. It says Solo had four shutouts in the World Cup before she was benched. She gave up two goals to North Korea, then had three shutouts. I was told by the publisher this would be fixed for later editions. But it lives on at Amazon.)

I’ve been down this road before in a post I enjoyed writing mostly for the Saturday Night Live spoof — Hope Solo: Too unique for a double standard. (Yes, it covers the 2007 incident.)

The basic point: It’s not Solo’s gender that makes her unique — at least, that’s not the only or even the primary factor. It’s the totality of the situation. She’s unlike other female athletes, yes. But she’s also unlike other athletes, period.

Given that, I think analyzing and assessing Solo’s suspension and her media coverage require a variety of perspectives. It’s not fair to chase off veteran sports writers who have covered women’s soccer just because they aren’t tweeting about day-to-day NWSL events. (That’s a thinly caricatured reference to some of last night’s Twitter conversation.) They’re basing their analysis on a solid base of knowledge, and it’s a valuable perspective — just as several other perspectives are valuable.

“But weren’t you questioning the late-arriving media in September when they realized Solo was still playing despite a pending legal case?” Here’s the difference: The media in that case came in very late to an existing situation, implicitly insisting that the case was important now that they were paying attention. In case you’re wondering, a lot of people had similar takes, while others quietly unfollowed me. You simply can’t please everyone when it comes to a Hope Solo case, particularly because everyone’s emotions are so inflamed because of the confluence of issues above.

Once again, in the wake of her suspension, I’m not sure we can come up with a comparison to make to another athlete. What if Tim Howard had recently had a criminal case dropped, only to be out late at night at training camp with his spouse, who got arrested on suspicion of DUI? (And was allegedly hostile to the police and nearly arrested himself — the “allegedly” is important here because, frankly, we shouldn’t put our full faith in TMZ’s account of anything, including the Solo incident.) Would Howard get a 30-day suspension and a lot of media coverage?

I’m inclined to say yes. I base that on 20-plus years of covering sports, men’s and women’s. If you come from a different perspective and would guess otherwise, I can respect that. Just understand that my perspective is also valid.

“What about Charlie Davies?” some said last night. Davies was in a U.S. men’s training camp when he got in the car with a drunk driver who crashed, seriously injuring Davies and killing another passenger. Fans rallied to Davies’ support. They also questioned his decision to get in the car.

Davies made a tragic mistake. The soccer community loved the sinner and hoped he would recover. They hated the sin. And there wasn’t much point in any additional punishment — Davies’ injuries cost him a couple of years of his pro career and (barring a remarkable next step in his comeback) any future shot at the national team, for which he had been playing well before the accident.

In Solo’s case, it’s OK to feel the same way we felt about Davies. It takes a rather snarky person to want Solo to continue making headlines for getting in trouble.

And she seems to recognize that she can’t continue down this path. In her statement, she says she thinks it’s best to take a break.

This statement didn’t satisfy everyone — as if any statement could. Some people are quibbling with the need to “decompress.” But we don’t know everything that’s going on with her and her family. Some might say this statement is PR’d-up, but I’m willing to take her at her word when she says something so specific about taking time away. I don’t think it’s the least bit controversial to say she needs to address some issues before she returns to the national team.

My guess is that she’s successful. I’m basing that on years of following her career, including several conversations with her of all types — group, private, friendly, less friendly, sports-related, music-related, philosophical. And yet, after all those years, I can’t say anything about Solo would surprise me. I might not understand her any better than you do if you’ve only read about her.

After all, she’s unique.

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3 replies »

  1. Totally agree that Solo requires a variety of perspectives to even begin to make sense of anything she does. What I still am not convinced of is that some who only chime in when she is on the outs have a valid perspective. The mere fact that someone covers a sport (and let’s face it, that usually means the men’s side of a sport) doesn’t really give them gravitas when they throw their two cents out there for clicks and grins. If they’d like their perspective to be considered maybe they could chime in more often, about things that really matter to the sport, give women’s sports a blurb or two in their chosen media, actually give a damn.

    So yes, a variety of perspectives is needed, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept a perspective if it seemingly comes out of nowhere, at only the worst of times.

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