The United States Women’s National Team opened its 2015 World Cup campaign last week, with a deserved 3-1 victory over Australia. Megan Rapinoe, a creative midfielder whose silky dribbling is reminiscent of Andres Iniesta, scored twice, sending the team to first place in the so-called Group of Death. Rapinoe’s second goal, a run from the halfway line followed by a powerful left-footed finish, remains one of the best of the tournament so far.
But Rapinoe’s impressive performance went virtually unnoticed in the media’s post-game coverage. The United States’ first two World Cup matches have been overshadowed by a controversy involving the team’s goalkeeper, Hope Solo. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Outside the Lines published a lengthy article recounting Solo’s behavior on the night of June 20, 2014, when she allegedly assaulted her half-sister’s 17-year-old son. (In January, a judge dismissed a two-count domestic assault charge against Solo on procedural grounds.) The story also details US Soccer’s half-hearted investigation of the incident: The federation, which has not punished Solo, neither requested police records nor contacted Solo’s nephew.
Last week, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal cited ESPN’s reporting in an open letter to US Soccer denouncing its “superficial” investigation. Blumenthal’s letter has sparked an increasingly heated public-relations battle, pitting Sunil Gulati, the president of US Soccer, against a coalition of angry soccer fans, longtime Solo critics and advocates for victims of domestic violence.
But the big losers here aren’t Solo and Gulati, although their reputations have certainly taken a hit. They’re the 22 women on the United States roster who have resisted the temptation to beat up a family member. In the Guardian, Jessica Luther recently argued that the US should keep Solo on the field, because if the team exits the World Cup early, TV ratings will plummet, “lending credence to the idea that…women’s sports in general are a much lesser version of men’s.” But here’s the thing: Solo’s presence at the tournament has shifted the media spotlight from an underappreciated sporting event to a year-old domestic assault case. No one is talking about Megan Rapinoe, because all anyone can think about is whether Hope Solo really slammed her nephew’s head into the concrete floor of his mother’s garage.
It seems fair to assume that Solo’s unquestionable goalkeeping talent, not to mention her status as the only bona fide celebrity in the American lineup, influenced US Soccer’s pathetic response to her case. Gulati would not have risked a PR firestorm to protect, say, reserve defender Lori Chalupny. But if Gulati’s mission is to encourage mainstream sports fans to take women’s soccer seriously, his approach has failed. Fans will learn to respect the women’s game once they see that this year’s World Cup features talented players competing against each other in exciting, fast-paced matches. At the moment, Solo’s off-field indiscretions are distracting the American soccer community from an athletic spectacle that could, if more people paid attention to it, help change the way fans perceive women’s sports.