HomeUnited StatesWorld CupGrasping for Hope

Grasping for Hope

June 26, 2015

Why we still struggle to place Hope Solo in the proper context

Illustration by Alvar Sirlin

Hope Solo is having a fantastic World Cup thus far. She saved the US Women’s National Team from a threatening Australian attack, helped keep the defense organized against Sweden, held Nigeria at bay, and kept a clean sheet against Colombia. She is one of the two or three best goalkeepers in the world, if not the best. And she also might have beaten the shit out of her 17-year-old nephew.

Ever since Outside the Lines‘s Mark Fainaru-Wada released the newest report on Solo’s family violence trial, a dam of think pieces has burst, arguing that high moralizers need to back off of Solo; or that U.S. Soccer should be more like the NFL; or that U.S. Soccer should not be like the NFL; or condemning the fact that we’re bringing the NFL into this in the first place. There’s no shortage of opinions about Solo, but most of them don’t bother to engage with what is really going on with her or with her legal case. That’s no accident, and the reasons for it are both simple and labyrinthine.

To wit: On June 21st, 2014, Solo was at her half-sister, Teresa Obert’s house with Obert’s 17-year-old son in Kirkland, WA. There was alcohol. A fight broke out. Solo’s nephew broke a broomstick over her head. The nephew called 911. Their stories on who was the aggressor diverged sharply. Solo sat in jail for three days. The case worked its way through the courts for months while Solo continued to play for the Seattle Reign and the U.S. Women’s National Team. Obert and her son eventually stopped cooperating with prosecutors, and the judge dismissed charges on January 13th of this year. Solo was then suspended by U.S. Soccer for a month for a separate incident, after which she went on Good Morning America to tell her story. Before the World Cup, ESPN published a redemptive profile by Allison Glock that argued Solo had found peace. The day before the U.S. played its opening group stage match against Australia, Outside the Lines reported that the case wasn’t finished — prosecutors filed an appeal with the Washington Superior Court on February 9th — and presented Obert’s first public interview.

The facts on the ground seem fairly plain: Hope Solo is a complex and troubled individual, and the majority of that has no business being judged by anyone from the outside looking in. The NFL is an organization of vast wealth, power, and influence, and to compare its financial and cultural stranglehold on the nation with that of the US Women’s National Team is hilariously off the mark. Furthermore, the crime committed by Ray Rice is not equivalent to the crime allegedly committed by Hope Solo. There isn’t a culture of domestic violence inside women’s soccer the way there appears to be in professional football. The type of Olbermann-style bloviating that suggests otherwise is pretty noxious, because intimate-partner violence and extended family violence are not the same thing. However, Hope Solo may have in fact beaten the shit out of her 17-year-old nephew.

That’s where all of us continually trip up when talking about Solo’s case. No, she’s not Ray Rice — but she’s not Charles Barkley, either. Howler editor George Quraishi recently commented that “we celebrate darkness and the complicated lives of male athletes,” and so we should do the same with Solo. The only problem is that in this instance, Solo isn’t Michael Phelps smoking pot, or Tiger Woods cheating on his wife, or Michael Jordan gambling at casinos. She is accused of beating the shit out of her 17-year-old nephew.

The tough-talking, no-shit-taking, “I would have made those saves” Hope Solo makes for a much more compelling public figure.

No, she did not systematically put a spouse under her control through manipulation and violence in order to exercise power over them. She instead ignited a physical dispute, something she admits has been all-too-common in her family over the years. But that dispute, in this instance, was worthy of law enforcement intervention. That’s not a player being a “difficult teammate” or “not being a role model”; that’s a player who could potentially be jailed for assault.

Potential incarceration is important to note here. What really made the Rice situation so infuriating was not that the NFL was wildly inconsistent in how it dealt with Rice — it was that Atlantic County prosecutors had the full casino elevator tape the whole time, and let him off with a slap on the wrist. That’s a gross miscarriage of justice. U.S. Soccer did indeed botch their investigation of Solo’s case. They were also right not to initially suspend her. Solo was going to have her day in court. Ray Rice never did. Not only was Rice’s crime different from Solo’s, he was never tried for it. Solo still might be. Until that day comes, U.S. Soccer should let her play.

We can’t cut this Gordian knot because if we call for Solo’s head, then we’re self-serving hypocrites looking to score equality points when we didn’t do enough to demand that Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson be suspended. We demean the suffering of Janay Rice and Peterson’s son. We pretend that a professional football player and a professional women’s soccer player somehow exist in the same sphere of influence.

However, if we try to brush the case aside, insist that Solo be allowed to play, and remind everyone that she isn’t as bad as Rice, then we accord athletes special privilege to avoid legal consequences because they do special things on the field. We also (sometimes inadvertently) demean the suffering that Solo’s nephew and half-sister allegedly went through. We imply that if extended family violence isn’t the same thing as intimate partner violence, then it must be a frivolous and unimportant crime.

So we end up being stuck in an impossible situation: Demand Solo’s suspension and be seen as a patriarchal hypocrite, or insist upon Solo’s victimization at the hands of a double standard, and be seen as implicitly endorsing a 33-year-old professional athlete beating the shit out of her 17-year-old nephew.

Fans have to thread the needle. In many ways, Solo is eminently likeable. She is brutally honest about her difficult past, a refreshing and all-too-rare quality in a high-profile athlete. Her autobiography contains such harrowing passages as, “… My family doesn’t do happy endings. We do sad endings or frustrating endings or no endings at all. We are hardwired to expect the next interruption or disappearance or broken promise.”

And then these traumatic memories: “Our home was a battlefield, a war zone of screaming, swearing and disrespect. Chaos was the norm. … We pushed and punched and kicked and scratched and screamed insults into each other’s faces. [My brother] hurt me, he hurt the things I loved. … I tried to hurt him back.”

This is a woman well aware of her own demons. Indeed, if the more honest parts of her exclusives with Robin Roberts and Allison Glock are to be believed, then she has turned a corner since late January. Maybe therapy has done her a world of good. It’s a positive development in women’s sports when a female athlete resists Disney-fying her public image. The tough-talking, no-shit-taking, “I would have made those saves” Hope Solo makes for a much more compelling public figure. Lest we forget, however, it’s not OK to beat the shit out of your 17-year-old nephew. If what Teresa Obert says is true, then Solo needs to be held accountable for that. (Thanks to Kirkland prosecutors’ appeal filed in Washington Superior Court in February, that might actually come to pass.)

And we in the media should remember to act like actual grown-ups and let reporters do their jobs. The FOX World Cup broadcast team — Rob Stone and Alexi Lalas excluded — took a rather flip and dismissive tone to the breaking story when it came out. The past was the past, they said. The team has dealt with this, they said. This story doesn’t affect what’s happening on the field, so why are we even talking about it? Eric Wynalda at one point scoffed, “This whole thing is getting a little annoying to me. Save it for Judge Judy.”

When Heather Mitts and Leslie Osborne say it’s “interesting timing,” there’s nothing interesting about it.

Jill Ellis and Carli Lloyd were ironclad three weeks ago in their responses to reporters’ questions about Mark Fainaru-Wada’s story on Outside the Lines, saying the team was in their bubble, the story had not been discussed, and that they were focused on beating Australia, nothing more. Great. Those are the answers you expect, and undoubtedly they reflect the truth. But it’s a good thing, ultimately, that the questions were asked. The news cycle is the news cycle, and you have to be prepared for whatever is part of it at any one time.

This World Cup is the biggest all-female sporting event in history. Outside the Lines released their story on June 7th with that in mind. ESPN got maximum attention paid to their reporting because it was published right before the USWNT’s first World Cup match. There is, by the way, absolutely nothing wrong with that.That’s how news works. When Heather Mitts and Leslie Osborne say it’s “interesting timing,” there’s nothing interesting about it.

ESPN should be commended for allowing both sides of the story to exist under their umbrella, too. The public now has the ability to read Allison Glock’s profile of Solo, as well as Mark Fainaru-Wada’s reporting on Teresa Obert’s version of events. That is the fourth estate fostering a robust and healthy public discourse, something that can’t always be said of ESPN. One need only look at how they deal with the NFL, pre-Ray Rice video, to understand how easily Bristol can look the other way. We have an extraordinary opportunity to examine a major case that lives at the nexus of several parts of the zeitgeist right now: Famous athletes in domestic violence cases, and the Women’s World Cup happening around us.

Journalists have an obligation to talk about an athlete’s off-the-field life when it wades into legal territory. Nobody should care if Hope Solo is a dog person or a cat person; everyone should care if she beat the shit out of her 17-year-old nephew in a drunken rage. Will any of this matter when she stares down a shot against China in the World Cup quarterfinals? Probably not. It matters a great deal to the law, though. Hope Solo is a famous athlete who may or may not have committed assault, which could have serious consequences for her future. She and Ray Rice aren’t equivalent, but how, exactly, is she not a problem? And why, exactly, should we not talk about it?

Evan Davis is a proud Toffee living in New York City. His writing has appeared in Film Comment, The Velvet Light Trap, MUBI Notebook, and The House Next Door. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram@ProfessorDobles.

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