So now the conversation about Hope Solo involves soccer, only soccer, and how the Americans need their esteemed goaltender to be spectacular tonight against the potent Germans. “This one will be won by Solo having a big game,” predicts ESPN analyst Julie Foudy, among the 1999 heroes who turned the Women’s World Cup into a quadrennial must-watch.
“Hope’s absolutely world-class,” U.S. midfielder Heather O’Reilly said. “I know she has a big one in mind, and that’s to win the World Cup.”
Suddenly, no one seems to care much that Solo was alleged to have smashed the head of her nephew, then 17, against a concrete floor last summer. Conveniently, no one dwells on a domestic violence scandal that includes allegations of Solo threatening and abusing police officers during her arrest. With the U.S. team just two victories from its first World Cup title in 16 years, since that day in the Rose Bowl when Brandi Chastain whipped off her jersey to reveal a bra and certify a milestone in women’s sports, we no longer hear from politicians demanding that Solo be removed from the team … and commentators who excoriated U.S. Soccer officials for standing behind her … and common-sense makers who asked why Solo was allowed to play for her country when NFL players with similar legal issues now are reprimanded before their cases are adjudicated.
Isn’t it disturbing that The Scandal has become The Solution, the answer for how to survive the Cup favorites in a hotly awaited semifinal in Montreal? Doesn’t this reek of a raging double standard, a conflicted acknowledgment that it’s permissable for an elite female athlete to continue competing amid a domestic violence saga when NFL boss Roger Goodell would have been pressured to punish Solo immediately — if she were, say, a 49ers running back? And what message is being sent globally when Hope Solo is a highly visible, longstanding presence for a team representing our country and what it stands for?
They say winning is an elixir for all sports ills. That hokey mantra should not apply to Solo. Regardless of whether the Americans lose tonight or win the tournament, she still faces a fresh round of legal issues, aired before the World Cup by ESPN’s “Outside The Lines,” that will buttress an appeal by prosecutors in Kirkland, Wash., to overturn a judge’s dismissal of assault charges on procedural grounds last winter. Solo is scheduled to return to court in September. A separate incident earlier this year led U.S. Soccer to suspend Solo for 30 days; her husband, former Seattle Seahawks tight end Jerramy Stevens was driving a U.S. Soccer team van with Solo as the only passenger when he was arrested for DUI in southern California.
The anti-Solo outcry was fierce before the World Cup. Since then, as a dominant defense has made her almost irrelevant in four consecutive U.S. shutouts spanning more than seven hours of soccer real time, the domestic abuse topic has been all but muted. The furor has been effectively silenced by U.S. Soccer officials, who have not required her to speak to the media during the tournament. Thus, Solo’s only words on her legal problems came in a favorable People magazine interview published before the Cup.
“It’s been painful,” she said in the interview, conducted in her home. “I almost lost my career. It’s been traumatic and embarrassing.”
In her only comment specific to the assault charges, which resulted from an alleged altercation with her half-sister and nephew at a family gathering, Solo told the magazine, “I wish my name was cleared. But people still believe I hit a child. … It’s been awful. But I am at peace.”
Since then, she has limited her public access to Instagram and Twitter communiques. One photo features her in a “Beast Mode” T-shirt sent to her by none other than Marshawn Lynch, well-known for blowing off the media with non-answers during Super Bowl week. The difference: Lynch was not being shielded by the Seattle Seahawks and the NFL amid a domestic-violence case; technically, Solo is being protected, by extension of her place on the national team, by the very government that is trying to convict her.
“I know our team and we have each other’s backs,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “I think it was something a long time ago, and we’ve put it to bed.”
Well, no. The alleged assault happened last June, and the DUI happened in January. But who really cares when there are German shots to stop and trophies to win? “I have really noticed her — on the field, off the field — just a really good focus,” Ellis said.
“I think Hope is prepared no matter what,” right back Ali Krieger said. “She is the best goalkeeper in the world, and she is professional enough to be ready whenever that moment comes. She is always on her toes, ready for a big play.”
At 33, Solo would be enjoying a full-blown testimonial this month if not for the legal case. She was brilliant in the only game where her services were urgently needed, a 3-1 opening win over Australia. It reminded us of her pedigree: she holds the U.S. record for most victories (134), starts (169) and shutouts (88). A 1-0 victory over China in the quarterfinals extended her scoreless streak to 423 minutes, third-longest in tournament history. This is the same athlete so celebrated after the 2011 World Cup, she did “Dancing With The Stars” and made a Sports Illustrated cover.
Yet walk past a newsstand now and she’s purposely absent from an SI cover featuring the U.S. team. And all you’ll hear from her is from a team-released video after the China victory: “I feel we are peaking at the right time so we are right where we need to be, so hopefully we are going to beat Germany and head into the final. It is strange to have these [personal] records in the World Cup because I want the focus to be on the team.”
If trophies were awarded for crisis prevention, U.S. Soccer already would have won. But in the bigger cultural picture, there are no victories here. The federation got away with one because national pride is in the air, a women’s soccer player wouldn’t be held to the same punitive standard as an NFL player and — as all sports pundits have to concede at some point — winning tends to minimize the impact of most scandals.
Which explains the silence. It seems more important now in America that the women’s team, which won the Cup twice in the ’90s, beats the Germans, who won twice in the ’00s. I reach this conclusion not as a public figure who once dealt with false allegations, which have been expunged entirely from my record yet still vaguely linger in the cyber eye. I come to this conclusion as a seasoned sportswriter who grasps reality.
Americans simply love champions, crime blotter be damned.
Jay Mariotti is sports director and lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his website at jaymariotti.com.