Column: US Soccer Releases Hope SoloSeptember 15, 2016

Column: US Soccer Releases Hope SoloAt what point is a superstar athlete more trouble than they’re worth? The treatment of Hope Solo, the former goalie for the U.S. national soccer team, may provide an answer.

In case you haven’t been following Solo’s saga, here’s a quick primer. After her team’s shocking loss to Sweden in last month’s Rio Olympics, Solo went off on her opponents. She accused them of being a “bunch of cowards” for playing defensively and claimed that the best team didn’t win the match. If the goal of playing a sport is to win, on the former point Solo is dead wrong. Smart teams with good coaching use whatever legal and ethical tactics are appropriate given the circumstances. If playing a defensive game increases the chances of winning, and surviving, then it is sound strategy and every team should embrace it. Solo conceded as much in follow up comments.

On the second point – the best team didn’t win - Solo was just as right as she was wrong on the first one, something the Swedish team acknowledged. The U.S. women’s team was clearly the class of the field, based on their history and pre-Olympic performance. But funny things happen on the field of play. The best teams prove themselves over the long haul but in the short run, e.g., one game, the best team doesn’t always win. Every athlete is aware of that possibility when they embrace the concept of competition. It happens in every sport and is one of the prime arguments against a one-game playoff for the Wild Card teams in MLB.

Solo’s post game comments, even conceding the highly emotional circumstances, seemed petty and clearly beyond the accepted standards of sportsmanship. But graciousness and decorum aren’t part of Solo’s DNA. Despite that, U.S. Soccer’s quick and severe response drew criticism not only from Solo’s supporters but her longtime critics. The governing body slapped her with a six month suspension and terminated her contract, arguably a form of double jeopardy which likely signals an end to Solo’s career with the national team. She will be 39 by the time the next Summer Olympic Games roll around and the team has younger and, at this point, more athletic goalies in waiting.

As harsh as the penalty was, Solo is hardly a sympathetic figure. Controversy has swirled around her like bees on honey since she began playing for the national team in 2000. Solo has had a number of run-ins with the law, including criminal charges for allegedly abusing her half-sister and her nephew and charges for acting belligerently during her husband’s DWI arrest. She also tested positive for a banned substance and has often criticized opponents and teammates alike. Although her actions have brought negative publicity to the team, her punishments have been few and minimal, perhaps because she has been hailed as the best female soccer goalie in the world.

Sports teams are willing to put up with controversy from stars, as long as they contribute to winning and/or put fannies in the seats. But once athletes are on the downside of time, teams are less inclined to tolerate embarrassment and distraction. The harsh treatment of Solo follows a decline in her performance. The obvious conclusion is that U.S. Soccer is simply washing its hands of her because they no longer believe she can help them win World Championships and gold medals.

Not surprisingly, Solo blamed her release on non-performance issues. She has been active in collective bargaining negotiations and along with several teammates, brought a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging that women’s team players should be paid on a par with their male counterparts. Women’s national team coach Jill Ellis defended the release in a statement published on U.S. Soccer’s website. “Over time there’s been off the field distractions for which the federation has taken action. Each time an action has been taken there’s been made clear an expectation that this would be the last time such a step would be necessary.”

Of course, “the last time” U.S. Soccer ignored a Solo indiscretion came after the team won. This time, after the team failed to win, Solo was gone, which proves once again that indiscretions are tolerated as long as athletes contribute to winning. When that’s no longer the case, they become as disposable as yesterday’s dishwater.