Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 11, 2015

A Story Long On Drama But Short On Heroes

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be just west of Boston this Sunday, attending the final round of the Senior Players Championship at the Belmont Country Club. Accordingly the regular weekend post will be delayed until Monday.

Team USA began Group Stage play in the Women’s World Cup on Monday, and the star of their opening contest against Australia was goalkeeper Hope Solo. Especially in the early going the underdog Aussies were far more aggressive than the Americans, and Solo kept her team from quickly falling behind. In the fifth minute she made a diving save on a shot from 15 yards out. Eight minutes later, just after Megan Rapinoe had given Team USA a 1-0 lead, Solo made another acrobatic stop on a volley that would have knotted the score. Then just before halftime she somehow made her way across the goal mouth just in time to stop a shot that appeared destined to slip inside the far post. In the end a pair of goals by Rapinoe and another by Christen Press were enough, as the Americans opened with a 3-1 victory in Winnipeg before a crowd in excess of 31,000. After the match Abby Wambach said Solo “saved our rear ends,” and Coach Jill Ellis called her “a game-changer.”

As great as Solo has been on the pitch during her fifteen years on our national team, even casual followers of soccer know that she has been a controversial and polarizing figure for much of that time. In 2007 then-coach Greg Ryan benched Solo for the World Cup semifinal against Brazil in favor of Brianna Scurry. After Scurry surrendered five goals Solo was harshly critical of Ryan, and found herself thrown off the team for a time. In 2012 she got into a public argument with Brandi Chastain, star of the team that won the 1999 World Cup, after Chastain criticized the current team’s defense. Five months ago Solo was suspended for 30 days after her husband was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving while behind the wheel of a Team USA van. A little more than two years earlier he was arrested though ultimately not charged with assault after an altercation left Solo injured on the day before their wedding.

The most serious off-field incident involving Solo occurred a year ago, when after a night of drinking she was arrested on domestic violence charges for allegedly beating both her half-sister and nephew. She sat out the next match of her professional team, the Seattle Reign, but U.S. Soccer took no action against her. After months of depositions and pre-trial maneuvering, a Washington state judge dismissed the charges last January because of a lack of cooperation from the alleged victims. Prosecutors have since taken the unusual step of appealing the dismissal, with a hearing on that appeal scheduled for September.

Just as the Women’s World Cup was about to kick off ESPN’s Outside the Lines revisited the events of June 2014 in a report that cited police reports, various documents filed with the court as part of the case, and interviews with Solo’s half-sister. The ESPN story paints a drunken Solo as the aggressor, even against her teenage nephew who is 6 feet 9 inches and 280 pounds, and the police reports indicate she was abusive to officers who responded to a 911 call. The report was of course picked up by other media outlets, running the full range from tabloids to the New York Times. This week U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) joined the pile on, demanding that U.S. Soccer remove Solo from the team roster for, among other reasons, the fact that she was a poor role model for children watching the World Cup.

Over the years this space has been filled with many accounts of heroes in a variety of sports. But sometimes reality intrudes, and one must tell a story in which there are no heroes. While she is a marvelous and accomplished athlete, there is ample evidence that Hope Solo is not such a great person. She might not be someone the average fan would invite over for dinner, especially if alcohol is being served.

That’s not to say that her relatives are any more upstanding. In the wake of the ESPN report, many stories this week have reported that the domestic violence charges were dismissed “on procedural grounds.” It is worth noting that the legal technicalities that are implied by that phrase were the alleged victims’ refusal to fully answer questions under oath and their constantly shifting accounts of what happened last June.

Yet that cannot diminish the seriousness of any allegations of domestic violence. The tepid response by the Seattle Reign and the complete lack of either an investigation or response by U.S. Soccer at the time of the incident is inexcusable. Contrast that to the quick action recently taken by the WNBA to suspend stars Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson for the new season’s first seven games after a fight between the two at their Arizona home. Or for that matter contrast the non-response to the actions of the NFL in the post-Ray Rice era. The fact that Roger Goodell’s league can be held up as a model for how to respond to domestic violence charges speaks volumes about how U.S. Soccer failed last June.

Action back then might have prevented the recent ESPN story and subsequent media storm, while still allowing Solo to play now, but that hardly makes the media blameless. Her half-sister cites an appearance by Solo on Good Morning America in February as the reason for agreeing to tell the sports network her side of the story. But if that’s true, there is nothing in the ESPN report that wasn’t available back then. Of course a story about Hope Solo released in February or March wouldn’t have had nearly the legs as one released just as the Women’s World Cup was starting in June. A New York Times columnist citing the Outside the Lines report wondered how much of a distraction it will be for Team USA. To which it seems fair to ask, did Solo create that distraction, or did the media?

As for Senator Blumenthal, please take your soapbox somewhere else. We live in an age in which privacy is nonexistent and news coverage is constant. We can no more expect our sports stars to be role models than we can our politicians. It’s wonderful when an athlete also happens to be a good person, but that’s not why we in the stands cheer them on. NBA great Charles Barkley got that one right long ago, when he suggested that the place for a role model is not on the playing field but at the head of the dinner table.

It will all go on of course, at least until the next sensational distraction comes along. But it is also a story that takes place entirely off the field. That is where we live our lives, but our sports take place inside the lines. There on Friday Solo and her teammates will face Sweden, coached by former Team USA coach Pia Sundhege. Sundhege led our national squad to a pair of Olympic gold medals, both won with Solo in goal. Having returned to her native land, she will now attempt to slow her former squad’s march toward the Knockout Round. Whichever team emerges victorious, the game is sure to produce stories. Unlike this one, those stories will have heroes.

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