By Christian Schneider
Sports quotes are funny things. Usually, they are boring, cliched, unimaginative, and generic: "Never say die" "Both teams played hard" "Anything is possible" "There is no 'I' in 'Team'" Blah, blah, blah.
Sometimes they are ridiculously overdramatic: "Winning isn't everything, it's the ONLY thing" "This game's gonna be a war" "We're going into battle" Sheeeeeish.
But every once in a while, you hear an athlete or a coach say something that actually makes you stop and think. For me, the quote that has always stood out in my mind came from Shane Battier, a journeyman NBA-player, sharp guy, and cursed Duke-grad. I can't remember what or who he was talking about, but he said this:
"The beauty of sports is that you can win your way out of anything."
That is one hell of a quote. For starters, it's absolutely true. Think about the athletes and teams that have been remembered as winners despite their issues. The 1978 Yankees and the 1986 Mets are a bunch of druggie, drunken assholes without their World Series rings. Rasheed Wallace is a bad-tempered, technical foul-getting baby without his 2004 NBA title. If David Beckham hadn't won the treble with United in 1999 and single-handedly saved England in 2002, he'd always be the stupid boy who saw red against Argentina in '98. And if Kobe hadn't won those last two titles, he'd always be the brat who chased Shaq out of town and was accused of sexual assault.
But the other thing that stands out is that Battier called it the "Beauty" of sports. Is that really beauty? That we value athletic achievement over character? That we make excuse for stars because they're stars? That we give them second chances that we wouldn't give to our neighbors or maybe even friends? It may be Beauty for the stars, but it makes the rest of us look like Kool-Aid drinking sycophants. And it makes us look real dumb when those stars hang us with that extra rope we give them.
Which brings me to Hope Solo.
In the aftermath of the US Women's Soccer Team's shocking Quarterfinal defeat to Sweden, Solo gave just about the bitterest quote I've heard from a defeated athlete:
"We lost to a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win. I truly, firmly believe that."
Get that woman a glass of water pronto, because she is SALTY. She was referring to the fact that Sweden, a team that was vastly overmatched by the USA's talent, played a packed-in, defensive game that focused on clogging up the US attack and relying on scattered counterattacks to score their goals. To soccer fans, this is known as HAVING A STRATEGY. And it worked. The US never got in rhythm, they never looked comfortable, and they lost in a heartbreaking penalty shootout. They got beat. Period.
But that doesn't matter. It's sports. Sometimes you lose, even if you're a team as dominant as the USWNT. What DOES matter is having class and representing your country with class.
Now, that last bit I just wrote might be the most overused cliche of them all: Be a Good Sport. But you know what? We all seemed not to care about that when we were dealing with Hope Solo. In the long and storied history of sports villains and villainesses, Hope Solo will go down as being right in the upper tier. And finally, mercifully, her embarrassing career for her country might have come to an end.
Let's be clear now: Hope Solo is the greatest women's goalkeeper of all time. Last month, she recorded her 100th shutout. She has won the Golden Glove at two World Cups. She has a World Cup title and two Olympic Golds to her credit. She makes saves that no other woman can make. For some time, she was the most recognizable face in Women's Soccer, topping even the great Abby Wambach who, for the record, would never have handled losing so poorly.
But Solo's also just about the worst person to put on an American soccer jersey. She first came to prominence in the 2007 World Cup when, after leading the US to the semifinals against Brazil, she was inexplicably benched by Head Coach Greg Ryan in favor of the veteran Brianna Scurry. It didn't go well. Scurry was terrible, the US was thrashed 4-0, and Solo spent the entire match moping on the bench. After the game, she called out her coach, implied that Scurry was over the hill, and said that she, Hope, could have made those saves. Factually, she was correct. That didn't make her right. Her teammates voted to suspend her.
The next summer, she had a new head coach (Pia Sundhage), her starting spot back, and saved a penalty against Brazil in the Gold medal match of Beijing 2008. Win your way out of anything. Said Solo: "It's a fairy tale ending." If only.
Three years later, she was a hero again against Brazil in the legendary quarterfinal game in 2011, saving a penalty kick (twice, but one was wrongly disallowed) and keeping the US alive to advance to the finals. In 2012, her brilliant goalkeeping against Japan won the US another Gold Medal.
During that 2012 summer, she released a memoir called "Solo: A Memoir of Hope." The book essentially set her up as a perennial victim, from her childhood years, all the way up until the time she was railroaded by the veterans on the 2007 team for breaking ranks and insulting their coach and teammate. Parts of the book are inspiring. Parts of it are delusional and self-justifying. Revisionist history at its best.
In the book, she called out many of her former teammates by name, such as Kristine Lilly and Kate Markgraf, who had helped bring Women's Soccer to prominence in 1999. During London 2012, she trashed Brandi Chastain for being biased towards the 1999 World Cup team and questioned her competence as a soccer analyst.
Hope Solo has a career because of those women. Because of the sacrifices they made and the path they blazed in the early lean years of Women's Soccer, current players like Solo have a professional league, an international fan base, endorsement deals, and higher (though certainly not equal, more on that later) pay. Hope Solo calling out Brandi Chastain and Kristine Lilly is akin to Hank Aaron calling out Jackie Robinson: yea,h you're great, but without the other you don't happen. But Solo won Gold that summer so La Dee Da, no one cared.
Then in 2014, Solo was arrested in Seattle (where she plays professional soccer) on two charges of misdemeanor assault, one against her half-sister, and one against her nephew. The police report stated that she had attacked them and left them with visible marks. They determined that Solo was the aggressor and instigator. One officer was quoted as saying "She is something of a celebrity here in Seattle, but she has a very bad temper. She was intoxicated and upset." Her sister detailed how she had slammed her nephews head on a concrete floor repeatedly. Police reports said she was verbally abusive while in her holding cell. The charges were later dropped due to non-participation of the victims. Solo claimed she had been defending herself from her nephew, who had made the 911 call.
And so, the USA Soccer Federation had themselves a real predicament. They had the Women's World Cup coming up the following summer. It was in Canada, and promised to draw record crowds out of the United States. Unlike in 2011, when the Cup was held in Germany, TV ratings were going to be high due to a lack of time difference. Women's soccer was trending up, behind stars like Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, and, yes, Hope Solo. And now the best goalkeeper in the world was facing domestic abuse charges in a year when domestic abuse by athletes was the red-button issue. The NFL had Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. USA Soccer had Hope Solo.
USA Soccer did nothing. They left her on the roster. Beside a handful of articles and a letter from a US Senator, no one really cared. Yeah people might have said it was unsettling, that it showed bad character, but no one wanted to see the US lose in Canada. And there was only one Hope Solo. The next summer, as the US blazed to victory, little girls in the stands waved signs that read "I LOVE HOPE" or "HOPE IS MY IDOL." Sickening.
Listen, I'm as guilty of this as anybody. In an article I wrote last summer on this site, I had a comment about how, even though Solo was "a genuinely bad person" I'd cheer for her if she made a game-winning penalty. When she psyched out Celia Sasic in the 2015 Semifinal I cheered as loud as anyone in the bar. Because winning a World Cup is a hell of a thing. And when Solo's charges were reinstated two months later, it didn't take the thrill of a US victory away for me.
And here we are one year later. After an Olympic run that saw Solo constantly booed by the Brazilian crowds for her comments about the Zika Virus, the USWNT is going home early. It's their worst ever finish at a major tournament. And it couldn't have come at a worse time.
In the aftermath of their World Cup victory and the lead-up to Rio, the USWNT sought to make a strong push for equal pay. They have a solid case. Unlike the men, they are winners. They are paid less to win than the men are to show up. They are still bankable athletes with sponsorships, endorsements, etc. Their TV ratings in the World Cup Final were, among US audiences, the highest ever for a soccer match. The team leaders, Solo among them, signed an official suit against USA Soccer. They face an uphill battle and will surely lose. They even considered boycotting the Olympic Games.
And now they have lost on the pitch. This means no high ratings for the medal rounds, no victory bonus, no paid victory tour, and less international exposure. Their fight to grow the women's game and secure equal pay just hit a BIG pothole. And how they handle it is going to determine how they come back from this. Due to the disgusting double standard we have in this country regarding women in pretty much any field, they are probably going to have to go on a special kind of charm offensive.
And then Hope Solo went and did it again. To say she was a sore loser is to say that Jim Morrison had a bit of a drug problem. She insulted her victorious opponents, dissed her former coach Pia Sundhage (who Solo owes quite a bit to BTW), and insisted that the US was still the better side.
Former players and journalists were quick condemn her comments and say that this kind of poor sportsmanship is not indicative of USA soccer. But let's all take a moment here to realize that as sports fans, we had this coming. For all the number of times we made excuses for Solo, or turned a blind eye, or shrugged our shoulders at her off-field antics, we were just building up to a moment like this. Let's be honest, was anyone really surprised that Solo handled losing like shit?
Looking forward the day after defeat, we see that 2019 will see a very different US team. Players like Mallory Pugh, Crystal Dunn, and Morgan Brian will be the stars of the squad. Captains Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn will be 37 and 34 respectively. Megan Rapinoe will be 34. Alex Morgan will be 30.
And Hope Solo will be 38. Her predecessor, Brianna Scurry, lost her starting spot to her at 34 and retired at 37. We may very well have seen Hope Solo's final appearance at a major tournament for the US. If it is, let's hope at France 2019 we see in goal a woman that American sports fans can be proud of. And if it isn't, if Hope Solo stands between the posts in another World Cup, let's hope those young girls leave those "I LOVE HOPE" signs at home. There are some things you just shouldn't be able to win your way out of.