Former US Women’s National Team goalkeeper Hope Solo announced this week she will run for president of the United States Soccer Federation. The initial response has been … dismissive.
Solo is rightfully regarded as a #USWNT legend (with two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup championship over a 16-year career than included 202 caps), but she has also developed a somewhat spotted reputation in the eyes of many for a series of off-field incidents. It’s safe to say that her personal brand has suffered in recent years despite her status as a national sports icon.
I read the news and posted the story to Facebook with this comment: “SO many things I want to say here. Probably shouldn’t, though.” (Of course, I got lured into making some comments after all, perhaps predictably.)
Later, however, I read the letter Solo posted on her Web site explaining her reasons for running; now I find myself feeling a good deal of ambivalence over her candidacy, and perhaps about her generally. I fear I’ve been unduly critical at times, and as I’ll explain in a moment, perhaps I, of all people, should have known better.
As the letter explains, Solo didn’t grow up affluent, like so many of her contemporaries. In fact, this points to one of the two or three most significant challenges facing the USSF: its pay-to-play system, which borders on scandalous. The economics can be brutally unfair, and if you grew up without a lot, you’ll probably see her struggle in ways many others don’t.
I learned at an early age that my family didn’t have the means to pay for me to play club or Olympic Development Program (ODP) soccer. Year after year, I knocked on doors to get handouts from neighbors and family friends. My grandparents also supported my never-ending tournament fees. When I made my first regional pool and was asked to stay one extra week, it would have cost my family $500-$600 as a “reward” for their daughter being one of the best players in the region, an honor they could neither afford nor accept.
My parents said no.
My parents gave me a great life but they had no choice but to say “no” time and time again to the outrageous expenses that we would incur with every team, every tournament, and every camp. I was the best player in the state, but I couldn’t afford gas money to drive across the mountains to play in tournaments, stay two nights in the hotel and eat out.
My mom advocated for my club team to not spend $75.00 on jerseys and another $35 on matching team bags, but to print numbers on t-shirts. We were one of the best teams in the state, regardless of not having matching Nike kits.
My whole life I knew that I was one of the few lucky kids living by the grace of others. I had so much support around me, but the reality was never lost on me. I very easily could have been just another kid lost to the system.
The systemic problem in U.S. Soccer starts at the youth level. Soccer has always been a middle class sport and in more recent times, has become an upper middle class sport. Some of the best clubs around the country charge each youth player between $3000-$5000 per season. I have personally witnessed young players heartbroken over the financial reality that they could no longer pursue their dream.
$5,000 a season to play on a club? Damn.
Solo describes her family as lower middle class. If this is accurate (I don’t know the details of her background, but will take her at her word until presented with a reason not to) she was actually a little higher up the socio-economic food chain than I was – we were rural Southern working class, and while I always had the necessities, there was never much for extravagances. People who grew up in circumstances like these know the difference between “need” and “want.”
No matter how good I may have been at something, there was never a time when $5,000 would have been possible. In my neighborhood, $50 was a lot of money, and there are things I never did because of it. The annual class trip to Washington DC, for instance – I believe it cost even less than $50 but it was decided I couldn’t afford to go.
But Solo was driven. She busted her ass, she sacrificed and eventually she realized her life’s goal.
What could be more utterly American?
Our society has a huge class problem, and Solo’s story casts a light on some of its uglier features. Snoop around the Internet and you’ll see her routinely characterized as a bitch, as trash or white trash (and sexualized for it, as in “sexy in a trashy way” and “white trash hottie”), as crazy (Google [hope solo crazy] and it returns better than 3.8 million hits) and who knows what else. I’m ashamed to admit that I have on occasion contributed to this nonsense. As I say, I ought to know better.
We Americans tolerate all manner of bad behavior out of well-scrubbed upscale kids (and adults), but people further down the social ladder (male or female) rarely get the nod-nod-wink-wink “boys will be boys” treatment (although women along all social strata get treated worse than their male counterparts regardless). Yes, Solo has acted in ways that were embarrassing at times (for her and the USWNT), and perhaps illegally in the case of her pending assault case, but how do her crimes stack up against those of, say, Brock Turner?
When Solo talks about the uphill struggle she faced being less affluent, I get it. I really do. If you aren’t well-off and/or well-connected, you don’t get the kinds of breaks people from better neighborhoods get. (And this is if you’re white – if you’re a minority I don’t know how you ever get a shot).
As a result, when she talks in her announcement about being a poor kid in a pay-for-play world, she’s telling the truth. When she talks about the gender-equity issue in how much the women’s team is paid vs the far-less successful men’s side, she speaks from a place of deep experience.
Hope wants to be president of the USSF for some very good reasons, and her personal history helps her feel the urgency of them in ways most other hopefuls can’t.
Does this make Solo the best candidate? No. It’s fair to consider the record of embarrassing moments noted earlier in asking about her fitness for the position, although a good-faith examination of those events also suggests most weren’t that big a deal. Should she have attacked the Swedish team for its defensive tactics in the last Olympics? Of course not. Was that episode something that should exclude her from the position? Don’t be silly. She’s competitive as hell and she’s not the only athlete to say something inappropriate after a crushing loss. If the worst thing that happens to the USSF is a president with a serious fire in her belly, then it will be just fine.
[Note: I say “most.” A conviction on the assault charges would change matters entirely.]
The real issue, from where I sit, has more to do with basic qualifications. Solo has been active as a public figure, but her résumé lacks any history of leading an organization on the scale of the USSF. The same can said for some of her male opponents, as well, and it’s a concern no matter the gender of the candidate. (Of course, one might argue big org experience is a negative in that it certifies you as a member of the status quo, which with the USSF means you’re part of the problem. I’m looking at you, Carlos Cordeiro.)
Some people have lobbied for a female president, and when they argue it’s the women’s side of US football that actually knows about success, they aren’t wrong.
Of the nine candidates, two (Solo included) are women. The other is Kathy Carter, president of Soccer United Marketing, and she’s regarded as one of the favorites. She’s more aligned with the business end than the technical, though, and many of us place a higher priority on developing successful programs than we do on helping rich people make even more money.
What about somebody like Mia Hamm, the greatest player the US has ever produced (male or female)? She’s part owner of the expansion Los Angeles FC, she’s a global ambassador for Barcelona, one of the most successful clubs on the planet, and she’s on the board of AS Roma, the 15th richest club in the world. I haven’t heard any hint at all that she’s interested in tossing her hat into the ring, unfortunately, but hopefully someone has suggested it to her.
So if I don’t think Solo is a good candidate for the job, what would I like to see for her? I think the USSF would benefit by hiring Solo to work on pay-for-play and gender equity. I’m not sure what shape this relationship takes, but it should be meaningful, it should report directly to the new president and it should be paid (I very much support Paul Lapointe’s desire to professionalize USSF leadership). If we know anything about Solo at all, we know she’s going to speak her mind in a loud, clear voice. That voice needs to be heeded because she’s raising hell about issues that must be addressed if the US is ever going to assume a place in the upper echelon of the men’s game (because a team featuring all of a nation’s best players is probably going to stomp the boots off a team made up of a nation’s best affluent players) and if it’s ever going to truly live up to our country’s all-too-frequently empty rhetoric about equality and opportunity.
If the USSF presidential selection process and its new administration disregard Solo’s campaign – as if she’s some kind of, you know, crazy white trash hottie bitch – it will tell us a great deal about the actual state of football in America.
It won’t, however, tell us anything we don’t already know.