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Lauletta: Thoughts on the Hope Solo suspension

Hope Solo's tenure with the national team could be over for good. (Getty Images)

Hope Solo’s tenure with the national team could be over for good. (Getty Images)

Two weeks ago I made my feelings known via Twitter about Hope Solo referring to Sweden as a bunch of cowards in the aftermath of the United States’ stunning loss on penalties in the Olympic quarterfinals. Though I thought the commentary was both baseless and classless, I also believed it was a story that deserved to die in a day.

U.S. Soccer disagreed with me. A dozen days after Solo’s comments sparked outrage that briefly transcended sports and the Olympics the sport’s domestic governing body issued her a six-month suspension and terminated her contract with the national team. That set off another round of outrage not so much in defense of Solo but at U.S. Soccer for its timing and seemingly convenient adherence to moral standards.

Here are my thoughts.

this was a lifetime achievement award

U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, in announcing the suspension, did not even shy away from this. “Taking into consideration the past incidents involving Hope,” Gulati’s statement began, “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.”

If we remove ourselves from the now famous coward remark, this makes perfect sense. Solo’s transgressions include but are not limited to, publicly thrashing head coach Greg Ryan and teammate Brianna Scurry after a 2007 World Cup loss to Brazil; being arrested on domestic violence charges (the charges are still pending having been dropped and then reinstated on appeal.); and being caught in the team van with her intoxicated husband at the wheel during a training camp.

Does that sound like someone you would want on your team? Certainly each incident has its own context, and there are surely examples in which Solo exhibited exemplary behavior that stayed out of the headlines for their lack of sensationalism. But taking each incident on its own merit and then adding them up, I would probably opt to live without the headaches.

U.S. Soccer seems to have come around to this way of thinking.

But…

why now

Most of us don’t think a slightly less than polite remark extracted from lengthy comments is worth such severe penalty, but the “straw the broke the camel’s back” theory is legitimate. Sometimes it is not the worst offense but the smaller one that follows the worst events that sends an employer over the edge. I can’t see any other player on the roster being punished had they said what Solo said.

All that said it cannot be ignored that the van incident—which involved behavior that directly put Solo and others in danger—drew a 30-day suspension that allowed her to return in plenty of time to ramp up for the World Cup. Nor can it be overlooked that in a time when sports leagues are taking a harder than ever position on domestic violence, U.S. Soccer not only failed to act when Solo got mixed up in it, they more or less helped Solo close ranks to ignore it in a futile effort to make it go away.

Is U.S. Soccer the first sports organization to overlook some shady behavior in the name of winning? Hardly. And it won’t be the last. Still, if this was really the straw that broke the camel’s back, then why was the camel so sturdy while Solo closed in on 100 shutouts complete with all the trimmings of U.S. Soccer doing its best to make it a big deal. That does not sound like an organization contemplating turning loose one of its most talented and important pieces.

Only now it is safe to do so. With six months to sit on it, U.S. Soccer has some time to gage whether the next line of goalkeepers look like they can play at an acceptable level as well as take the temperature of the team with her out of the mix. If that sounds cynical, well so does the timing of this punishment.

was it even punishable

Athletes say negative things about each other all the time. Often they are way worse than using the word coward—which again was part of a broader set of comments—and often they go back and forth a few times before petering out. Did Pia Sundhage leave Solo swinging in the wind when she refused to engage after the press filled her in? Would a vicious rebuke from Sundhage or someone else in the Sweden locker room have turned Solo into a sympathetic figure within the walls of US Soccer? On this we will never know.

Personally, I can see pulling a player aside and suggesting they tone down the insulting rhetoric, but a six month suspension?

History is an odd guide on this one. In 2014 the NBA suspended then Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after secret recordings picked him up making racist remarks to his girlfriend. The Sterling case may or may not have been a camel’s back situation as he had faced numerous allegations over the years alleging sexual harassment and housing discrimination. His lifetime banishment was also a bottom line issue. Right or wrong once the tapes leaked his presence as an NBA owner was going to be an albatross for business partnerships.

In 2008 the NHL suspended Sean Avery—who had a history of straddling the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior—for saying that, “it’s become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds.” The comment was an apparent reference to at least two of his ex-girlfriends being romantically linked to other NHL players. After handing down an indefinite suspension for what commissioner Gary Bettam termed, “inappropriate public comments, not pertaining to the game,” the ban was set at six games. (note: Tom Hicks, owner of the Dallas Stars who Avery played for at the time of the suspension, applauded the league’s decision and said the team was prepared to suspend him if the league had not.)

Back to soccer, it is difficult to fit Solo’s comments into these admittedly randomly selected comparisons. Her comments were mildly offensive but only as it pertained to Sweden’s soccer tactics. (other portions of her commentary praised the tactics.) They were not personal attacks or discriminatory against any particular group. And they were extremely unlikely to have a ffected the bottom line. I also find it difficult to imagine that it warrants any punishment at all.

Or did it affect the bottom line

Paul Kennedy, the Editor in Chief at Soccer America sent this fascinating tweet on Wednesday night suggesting that the suspension was a mechanism to keep Solo way from the bargaining table as the collective bargaining agreement heads to its conclusion at the end of 2016.

I have no idea if either of these sentiments are true, but Kennedy is not one to send impulsive tweets. This could also explain why U.S. Soccer made a grand show of publicly staining Solo rather than just not calling her into the team in 2017.

I’m expecting the mood around the negotiations to get darker before a deal gets done. And it would not surprise me if they go smoother with Solo out of the equation.

next step: the appeal

Rich Nichols, the executive director of the USWNT players union, said immediately that the ruling will be appealed. The two tenets he referenced were gender discrimination and the 1st amendment. I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t believe either of those holds up.

The gender discrimination is difficult to prove, and beyond that there are few personalities comparable to Solo’s. I privately polled a few respected females from the soccer community about this and the response was mixed. As for the 1st amendment, freedom of speech was designed to prevent punishment for speaking out against the government. It was never meant to mean you could say anything you wanted to disparage your employer with no consequences. (cue unending debate)

Again, I’m no lawyer, and I think this suspension and contract termination is almost entirely off base and mistimed. But I don’t see it being overturned on appeal.

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