Olympic sports include some of the most challenging and grueling competitions known to man, yet the payoffs are some of the worst. A decathlon champion like Ashton Eaton has to be a better athlete than your average Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, but all he’ll get is a gold medal and a little bit of cash, compared to the widespread fame and riches his basketball counterparts reel in regularly.
Even Michael Phelps, a superstar in swimming, shines only every four years. His career likely ends after this Olympics, at 27, with the man who is set to become the most decorated Olympian ever still paling in comparison to an athlete like Tom Brady in the attention he draws.
The strange paradox between skill and reward continues in team sports. Competition that requires incredible cohesion between its team members, such as water polo, won’t ever get the accolades that a good fast break from Team U.S.A. will.
That’s where U.S. Women’s Soccer finds itself. This team is one of the high points in all of American sporting history, from the Mia Hamm goals and Brandi Chastain celebration all the way to today’s stars, who are one of the best examples of team play in all of competition. Whether people enjoy women’s sports or not, the draw of this team is undeniable, as the players have a level of talent, execution and camaraderie not often seen — and in the high reaches of international play.
But this team is also mostly invisible. It has its diehard fans and legions of young soccer players watching. It has its usual reporters — the ones who cover soccer as a whole (will there ever be a women’s soccer beat?). And even when the team puts up incredible goals and games, its support is mostly relegated to the kind of cheering that goes on at Olympic events, when you look through all the sports and athletes and pick out the Americans, rooting for them because it’s the time of summer to cheer for anything from the U.S.
It’s unfortunate, and it’s unfair, but it’s life. If hard work always paid off and the good guy always won, this world would be a different place. Guys would pick someone other than the pretty girl, and a bald man will finally be president.
The fact is, some sports won’t ever be as popular as others, and women will always get the knock, even when they play comparatively better than their male counterparts (the U.S. Men’s Soccer team leaves oh-so-much to be desired).
But that isn’t a reason to complain or take potshots. As hard as it is being noble, those who are on a team of unnoticed greatness shouldn’t give in to the urge to call attention to themselves at the expense of all the good they’ve accomplished.
And that’s how we arrive at Hope Solo.
Solo is known for her outspokenness and charismatic public persona. She has loads of sponsors thanks to her great goalkeeping skills, and she appeared on Dancing With the Stars last year. But her shift into the public eye has never been solely about her talent. Solo’s comments have gotten her attention — and that has been the close-up most people see of U.S. Women’s Soccer players.
Solo started her foray into public callouts after the 2007 World Cup, when she blasted the coach for dropping her in favor of Brianna Scurry — the goalkeeper who conceded four goals in the semifinal loss to Brazil. She was ostracized by her teammates afterward, an action that led to more remarks from her. She’s since made good with the team but has continued to draw attention, from her comments about sex at the Olympic Village to her autobiography to her latest insult, a takedown of Chastain, a former U.S. soccer legend.
Whether Chastain said anything out of line about a U.S. player, which Solo claims, is beside the point. What mattered is that, in the aftermath of a game in which Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd had their second stellar outing in a row, with Wambach coming back from a frightening blow to the face, Solo was calling attention to herself. The win was gutsy and well-proving of the U.S. ambition in these Games. But the public chatter afterward was mostly about Solo and her disapproval of Chastain.
Even if Chastain’s comments were insulting to the point that Solo was right to take her on, she picked a poor time (right after a victory that reaffirmed all that is good about the team) and place (Twitter, which is more akin to gossip and bickering than serious dialogue).
Worst of all, she set what may be the first impression of U.S. Women’s Soccer for many people. Those just getting into the Olympics won’t be focusing on Wambach fighting through pain, Rapinoe’s curling kicks, Alex Morgan‘s incredible goals, Lloyd’s coming off the bench to help carry the load or the overall great teamwork and spirit. They’ll be talking about Solo and her catty case of “my generation is better than yours,” her need to find another opponent for a team that has plenty of people to win over on its march to gold.
Solo’s only game moments in the spotlight have been allowing two goals to France within three minutes in what became a comeback win for the U.S. This isn’t to say she’s not a great goalkeeer, but why now? Why start lashing out right now, when a team of so many other players who are decidedly not drawing attention to themselves (go through a Wambach or Rapinoe postgamer and see if you can find any self-referential accolades) is doing so well?
Life may be unfair, and the U.S. Women’s Soccer team may not be getting the attention it deserves for a job well done. But creating controversy by criticizing people — especially forebears to the opportunities the team has now — is not the way to get it.
Solo is undoing the pristine reputation this team has of being all for one. When she did it before, her teammates froze her out. That may have been over the line, and Solo may be right to have felt mistreated.
But as she continues to open her mouth and destroy the ambience this team labors in silence to build, maybe it’s time to stop giving Solo the benefit of the doubt. She’s had a tough life, and she plays a sport that doesn’t get due recognition. But plenty of her teammates — who get far less attention than her — know what it means to play with honor, even if nobody’s watching.
Photo via Twitter/@jloiterton