Hope Solo Suspended For Words Not Actions

Aug 3, 2016; Belo Horizonte, Brazil; Team USA goalkeeper Hope Solo (1) celebrates after the game against New Zealand at Estadio Mineirao. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports John David Mercer

Hope Solo is a fantastic soccer goalie with an incredibly checkered off the field history. She’s ripped coaching decisions and been charged with domestic violence for allegedly fighting with half-sister and nephew. Her husband took a U.S. Women’s Soccer vehicle and was arrested for driving drunk in it. Solo was suspended for a month for her role in that incident, but missed no significant games for the incident.

Why did Solo not miss any games? Because she’s the only goalkeeper, male or female, to achieve 100 shutouts in international play.  

So if the U.S. Women’s Soccer team wanted to send an aggressive message about Solo’s role representing the country, they had plenty of opportunities to suspend her for significant actions as opposed to words relating to the game. Instead they’ve only chosen to act based on her post-game comments.

And after scouring the Internet, I haven’t been able to find any American athlete who has ever been suspended for post-game comments that didn’t malign coaches or fellow teammates. That is, Solo’s suspension for post-game comments — which, by the way, she is compelled to make as part of her soccer contract — is without precedent in the history of American competitive sports. 

So what did Solo actually say? It must have been incredibly incendiary to merit a six month suspension, right?

Hardly. 

Here are Solo’s full comments:

“I thought that we played a courageous game. I thought we had many opportunities on goal. I think we showed a lot of heart. We came back from a goal down. I’m very proud of this team. But I also think we played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today. I strongly believe that. I think you saw American heart. You saw us give everything we had today.”

Asked to explain her cowards comment, Solo continued:

“Sweden dropped off. They didn’t want to open play. They didn’t want to pass the ball. They didn’t want to play great soccer. It was a combative game, a physical game. Exactly what they wanted and exactly what their gameplan was. They dropped into a 50. They didn’t try and press. They didn’t want to open the game. And they tried to counter with long balls. We had that style of play when Pia was our coach. I don’t think they’re going to make it far in the tournament. I think it was very cowardly. But they won. They’re moving on, and we’re going home.” (The Swiss women’s team won its Olympic semifinal match via shootout and then lost in the gold medal game 2-1 to Germany.)

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?

99% of what Solo said in her 150 words of commentary was perfectly fine, she’s being suspended for using two words, coward and cowardly. But if you read the context Solo used the word coward as an antonym for courageous. So if the U.S. team played courageously, Solo said the opposing team played in a cowardly fashion. If she’d used a synonym for cowardly, say, cowering, gutless, craven, daunted, fearful, shrinking, soft, spineless, faint-hearted, would she have also been suspended? Or is, clutch your pearls boys and girls, cowardly or coward, just simply unacceptable to say about an opponent?

This isn’t uncommon talk for soccer players, by the way, who frequently discuss style of play in a positive or negative fashion. Teams with talent typically attack and try to score, teams with lesser talent pack in the defense and, according to many purists, make the game less beautiful by refusing to attack and try to score, failing to use the entire field, and hoping to advance to penalty kicks to pull off the upset. Exactly as Sweden did. In fact, Ronaldo said something pretty similar at the 2016 Euros and received no punishment at all. 

After Portugal tied an inferior Icleland team 1-1, Ronaldo said in his post-game comments: “Iceland only tried to defend … they had two chances then did not try to score. They celebrated like they had won the Euro cup or something. That’s a small mentality. That’s why they’ll do nothing.”

Both Ronaldo and Solo were representing their national teams in these tournaments. 

Within the context of soccer isn’t Ronaldo’s “a small mentality” the same description as Solo’s “cowardly?” Both players were criticizing an opponent’s defensive posture and disinterest in actually attempting to score. Moreover, Ronaldo said the Iceland team would “do nothing,” which is the exact same thing as Solo saying she didn’t think “they’re (Sweden) going to make it far in the tournament.”

So why is Solo receiving a six month suspension and Ronaldo receiving no punishment at all for his comments? Didn’t they basically say the exact same thing? (For the record, I certainly don’t believe that Ronaldo should be suspended for these comments, but I do find the disparate treatments fascinating.) Is this an example of sexism, we allow an opinionated man to toss out insults to his opponent, but not a woman? Maybe. But I think something larger is at play, I think European soccer fans are more educated than American sports fans. The Europeans understood what Ronaldo was saying, while the majority of Americans didn’t understand what Solo was saying at all. 

Here was the release from the U.S. soccer federation explaining their suspension:

“The comments by Hope Solo after the match against Sweden during the 2016 Olympics were unacceptable and do not meet the standard of conduct we require from our National Team players. Beyond the athletic arena, and beyond the results, the Olympics celebrate and represent the ideals of fair play and respect. We expect all of our representatives to honor those principles, with no exceptions.

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.”

Solo is suspended from team events until February of 2017. 

Essentially for using the words coward and cowardly. That’s three months per word. 

I’ve written consistently about my concern that American sports leagues have regularly punished words over actions. I am a First Amendment absolutist, meaning I want all opinions free to circulate in the marketplace of ideas. And while the first amendment only applies to governmental actions, I believe the speech restrictions utilized by many companies to restrict their employee’s commentary artificially inhibits the free flow of information in our country. Given that Disney, Wal Mart, and their ilk are more powerful than many governmental entities today, a private company’s restrictions on speech can be more harmful in today’s society than many governmental restrictions would be. This was the point I argued last week when Jack Daniels disinvited me from a corporate event for opposing Vanderbilt University’s decision to pay $1.2 million to sandblast the word Confederate off an 81 year old campus building.  

You don’t have to believe Hope Solo is a role model to see her suspension for post-game comments — an unprecedented move in American sports history — as an alarming sign for other athletes and our country in general. Certainly Solo has abundant faults. And she’s certainly benefited from lenient treatment relative to male athletes when it comes to domestic violence — if she were a man there’s no doubt she wouldn’t have been able to represent the national team with her outstanding domestic violence charges — but Solo wasn’t suspended for those acts. She was suspended for her words after a game. 

Comments that really boil down to one “inappropriate” word.  

If the U.S. Soccer federation wanted to suspend Solo for a game or even fine her, I’d still disagree with the decision, but that would at least be an arguable punishment. 

A six month suspension is draconian, indefensible and patently absurd. 

And whether your like Solo or not, the precedent it sets should be chilling to all of us who believe in a robust national discourse on all issues, sports or otherwise.

The real coward here isn’t Solo or or the Swedish soccer team, it’s the U.S. Soccer federation.  

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