What Hope Solo’s Diatribe Against Brandi Chastain Reveals About Women’s Soccer

Scenes from the Olympics.
July 30 2012 11:15 AM

"I Feel Bad 4 Our Fans That Have 2 Push Mute”

What Hope Solo’s war of words with player-turned-broadcaster Brandi Chastain reveals about the state of women’s soccer.

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The current national team is, understandably, sick of the so-called ’99ers, the Chastain/Mia Hamm/Julie Foudy teams that have been endlessly canonized. “That’s all we’ve ever heard about,” Solo griped to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl during last summer’s World Cup in Germany. “And we all know that they paved the way. But at some point in time you have to let go and build new stories and new names to the game.”

But that’s exactly what’s happened. After her team’s thrilling run and heartbreaking championship-game loss at that tournament, Solo became a media star. She appeared on a string of talk shows; signed sponsorship deals with Gatorade, BlackBerry, Electronic Arts, and others worth a reported seven figures; and appeared (and bitched about the judging) on Dancing With the Stars. Her autobiography, Solo: A Memoir of Hope, will be released in a couple of weeks.

Most athletes—particularly ones who, like Solo, become the face of their sport—learn to brush off criticism, whether from commentators or icons. This year’s basketball Dream Team, for instance, doesn’t seem at all threatened by the trailblazing 1992 model, which has been celebrating its collective self for months in a way the 1999 women’s soccer team never has. So what was Kobe Bryant’s response to all the self-love? We’d beat those guys, an assertion that put Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan on the defensive.

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But instead of pulling a Kobe and saying her team could beat the ’99ers—which they certainly could; the player pool is deeper today and the international competition much tougher—Solo whined that a TV commentator made it impossible for “our fans 2 enjoy the spirit of the olympics.”

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage met with Solo on Sunday but says the goalkeeper will not be disciplined. "We had a conversation: If you look at the women's national team, what do you want (people) to see? What do you want them to hear?" the coach explained to reporters. "And that's where we do have a choice—as players, coaches, staff, the way we respond to certain things."

Let’s hope Sundhage told her to think before she tweets—that her comments made the team, women’s soccer, and women athletes generally, look bad. Like me, Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins sees gender at play here, and she doesn’t like it. “What is this curious rule that says all female athletes are supposed to be homers for life, unquestioning backers of their team and gender, as opposed to independent-minded professionals?” Jenkins wrote in a column posted Sunday night.

A couple of years ago, I spent time with University of North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, who has won 20 NCAA titles and who also coached the national team in its early days, from 1986 to 1994. The cerebral Dorrance owes much of his success to identifying, understanding, and coaching to differences between men and women. “Women,” he told me then, “have the toxic combination of having incredibly high standards for each other and being amazingly sensitive at the same time.”

That sums up the Solo/Chastain kerfuffle pretty well.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at sfatsis9@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.