WINNIPEG, Manitoba – It's now a sadly familiar pattern: A major sports organization has a chance to lead, chooses to retreat and ends up making a bad problem worse.
U.S. Soccer was plagued with a distraction on Sunday, one day before its women's national team begins group play in the World Cup here against Australia. An ESPN report detailed disturbing allegations that star goalkeeper Hope Solo verbally abused police officers after a domestic conflict that led to her arrest last year.
"You're such a bitch," Solo said to one officer, according to a police report. "You're scared of me because you know that if the handcuffs were off, I'd kick your ass."
Solo's half-sister Teresa Obert went on camera describing her account of the alleged attack, accompanied by photos of scrapes on her neck and a bruise on her face. When asked if U.S. Soccer had asked for her side of the story, Obert said no. And in that moment, Solo's protectors looked nearly as poor as Solo did.
"I was surprised they didn't investigate," Obert told ESPN.
Head coach Jill Ellis dismissed several questions about the report during her Sunday evening news conference, insisting, "That was a long time ago." That response would have a lot more credibility if Ellis and U.S. Soccer had fully investigated and disciplined Solo last year instead of taking the easy way out. If the coach had suspended Solo even for a half in 2014, she could have taken a stronger stand now, saying her organization had dealt with the matter. Yet it's another upsetting surprise, another troubling glimpse at Solo's problems and another non-soccer soccer story for a sport that really could use some favorable news.
The unwillingness of sports organizations to get all sides of a story in a criminal case is both disappointing and counterproductive. It's happened a lot over the last year.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's meeting with Ray Rice after he punched then-fiancee Janay Palmer in a casino elevator was extremely light on tough questions and didn't even include a query about whether Rice struck Palmer with an open or closed fist. The Minnesota Vikings rushed to support running back Adrian Peterson immediately after he was arrested for whipping his child, but then they had to backtrack when another incident surfaced. Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said he and the team did "exhaustive" research on Greg Hardy before signing him after a horrific domestic violence incident, but didn't talk to anyone in Hardy's family. The Chicago Bears brought in Ray McDonald after his own domestic violence arrests, trumpeting his willingness to pay for his own flight to Chicago, only to have to cut him when McDonald was arrested again and accused of domestic violence and child endangerment.
In all of these situations, it seems teams and leagues don't really want unfavorable accounts. They want to believe their star didn't do anything wrong, or at least didn't do anything worse than what the public is privy to. So they ask a few painless questions and then sweep it all away. That's a shortsighted plan, viable for getting through one news cycle but prone to create more news cycles later. That's exactly what happened in the Solo situation, as U.S. Soccer failed to talk to all the people involved and then the people involved ended up talking to the media on the eve of its team's first Women's World Cup match.
U.S. Soccer, like all of these teams and leagues, should do its own due diligence and be thorough. If not for the community and for the victims and the millions of fans who care, do it for the athletes themselves. Solo surely didn't want her past being hauled out again before the biggest tournament of her life. She doesn't need a new group of fans reading about and discussing her behavior even while she plays on the world's stage. If she went through a real punishment (like the 30-day suspension she served for being in the team van that husband Jerramy Stevens was pulled over for driving while intoxicated), it's possible last week's news conference questions about her domestic violence issues wouldn't have been asked. And Solo could have said she went through a thorough process and an investigation and she feels it's time to start anew. Maybe then last year's news would have truly been last year's news.
Instead, the organization went with the head-in-the-sand strategy and now we're right back where we were in October. It could get even worse for Solo. Although her case was dismissed after Obert and her son failed to appear for a court ordered interview, prosecutors have filed an appeal with arguments expected in September.
Still, Ellis sidesteps. When asked Sunday about the new report, she said, "I'll be honest. We've moved on."
The hard truth is that U.S. hasn't gone anywhere with this situation.