Why Does Hope Solo Get Punished For Things Male Athletes Do All the Time?
If you’re going to punish athletes for bad behavior, don’t play favorites.
On Wednesday, U.S. Soccer announced that it had terminated Hope Solo’s contract with the national team and banned her for six months. Her crime? Calling the Swedish national team “cowards” for their defensive style in eliminating the U.S. in the Olympics quarterfinals.
From an outsider’s perspective, Solo’s punishment already seems a bit extreme. But even seasoned sports journalists are calling this as an unusual occurrence. Fox Sports analyst Clay Travis wrote on his blog, Outkick the Coverage: “This is hardly an egregious error in post-game commentary. Solo praised her own team and their style of play and denigrated the opponent’s style of play, saying she believed the better team lost and explaining why that was the case. She was brutally honest with her opinion. Isn’t this what we want athletes to do when they’re asked questions, be as honest as possible with us about their opinions of what happened in a game?”
According to U.S. Soccer, which declined Fortune’s invitation to comment for this story, the decision to cut Solo also related to her past behavior. “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,” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati in a statement.
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It’s true that Solo has been a controversial figure. On the one hand, she is a vocal champion for women’s equality in professional sports: She was one of the members of the national team to file a federal complaint against U.S. Soccer for wage discrimination. However, she also has a history of being verbally—and allegedly physically—abusive. In 2014, she was accused of a fourth-degree domestic violence offense in an incident involving her nephew and half-sister. That case has yet to be resolved.
And this isn’t her first warning: In early 2015, she was suspended by U.S. Soccer for 30 days by after she and her husband were stopped in a U.S. team van that he was driving in Los Angeles. (He received a DUI and served 3 days in jail).
Violent behavior—no matter how seemingly minor—should not be acceptable in any sport or from any athlete. But just compare Solo’s behavior in Rio to what other athletes—male athletes—have said and done recently. Top of mind, of course, is U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte, who has yet to be punished for fabricating a story about a robbery at gunpoint. Thus far, the approach in his case has been mostly, “boys will be boys.”
It’s not U.S. Soccer’s responsibility to discipline Lochte, but there have been other instances with male athletes which the organization has all but swept under the rug. In 2009, Team USA player Michael Bradley delivered a rant about “all the f—ing experts in America, everybody who thinks they know about soccer” after a FIFA Confederation Cup game. He was not punished, according to Vice‘s .
also points to an instance in which Clint Dempsey accosted a referee in a 2015 U.S. Open Cup game (run by U.S. Soccer), after which he was barred for just three games—though suspended from that particular tournament for two years. “But that sentence, conveniently, was served in Major League Soccer and up by the time the national team returned to action. He was stripped of his captaincy, but he was nevertheless called up for the Gold Cup without question.”
U.S. professional leagues are also notorious for letting athletes off easy: A review of domestic violence and sexual assault allegedly perpetrated by athletes in MLB, the NFL and the NBA from the beginning of 2010 through the end of 2014 shows that of 64 reported incidents, only seven players were punished by their league, and only two players were punished by their team, according to a report in Harvard Law School’s sports and entertainment law journal.
Granted, none of these examples is an apples-to-apples comparison to the Solo situation (a record of bad behavior, an offense on an international stage). But when comparing her punishment to that of other male athletes, something doesn’t quite feel right. Kobe Bryant, who was accused of rape in 2003, went on to have a long and illustrious career. Compare that to being kicked off your sport’s national team.
The player, for her part, has not apologized for her comments. Instead, she responded defiantly to the federation’s announcement, issuing a not-so-subtle reminder that she is a world-class athlete and a champion for women in sports.
“My entire career, I have only wanted the best for this team, for the players and the women’s game,” Solo told Sports Illustrated. “And I will continue to pursue these causes with the same unrelenting passion with which I play the game.”