Hope Solo is complicated.
She is not just one thing. She is a ridiculously talented keeper, perhaps the best in the women's game. She is passionate and always speaks her mind -- even though doing so has landed her in more than a few thorny situations. And she has always seemed herself: no walls, optics be damned.
All of these qualities have attracted a legion of rabid fans, and have made Solo one of the most compelling personalities in women's sports. But along the way, the 33-year-old has also seemed to be teetering on the edge, like a sports car on two wheels, careening around a hairpin turn.
So in a way, the 30-day suspension that U.S. Soccer handed down Wednesday night seems a long time coming. Finally, someone else called a timeout for Solo, because she is apparently incapable of calling one for herself. It's a necessary suspension -- Solo needs to go away for a while, even though, it should be stated, she has not been convicted of a crime.
But this entire story raises a larger question: How do we talk about female athletes? What happens when a woman does not neatly fit into the media's and society's limited definition of who a female athlete can be and how she is supposed to act?
In other words: Can we make space for complicated, flawed female athletes?
At the moment, we rarely do. Instead, a few, well-worn narratives seem to exist for female athletes. There is the "sex symbol" (some tennis players, for instance) ... the "role model" (too many to name) ... the "girl next door" (see: many gymnasts and figure skaters) ... and the "cool, guy's gal" (some MMA fighters and women's basketball players). Female athletes who can supposedly be defined by one (or more) of the above labels account for the majority of stories told about women's sports. They're stereotypical, simplistic buckets to toss women in.
The truth is, these paint-by-numbers templates are helpful -- they allow us to say something, anything, about female athletes.
But it's also trite. Original storytelling demands time and resources, commodities rarely devoted to women's sports.
So what happens when a female athlete exists far outside one of the aforementioned templates? Usually, she doesn't get any coverage at all, because nobody knows how to write about her, doesn't have the time to learn, or isn't interested enough in the first place. Often, those within women's sports are the biggest problem, as they shy away from saying anything remotely interesting or dynamic, for fear they'll lose the small piece of the pie that women's sports possesses. They'd rather play it safe and keep perpetuating the squeaky clean image, which is much safer than being vulnerable and real and flawed. (Of course, these things aren't mutually exclusive, and telling stories of positive female role models is extremely important.)
And the end result is that the media presents female athletes as mostly one-dimensional characters. Which, let's face it, is boring.
We love heroes. But heroes need villains. We love controversy. But controversy needs context. And women's sports exist in such a small sliver of space that room doesn't exist for that kind of dialogue, that kind of character development.
Solo is different. She offers something different. She is flawed. She has made, and continues to make, mistakes. None of that should be condoned. But she should not be dismissed as some sort of anomaly. She is an extreme example, but she is still representative of a truth: Female athletes are real, live human beings, and they struggle with the same things all human beings struggle with.
What if we start writing about that -- all of that?
Two weeks ago, Maggie Gyllenhaal accepted the Golden Globe for best actress. During her speech, she discussed the progress she has noticed for how women are being portrayed on TV and in movies. "What I see, actually, are women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not; sometimes sexy, sometimes not; sometimes honorable, sometimes not. And what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and film. That's what I think is revolutionary and evolutionary."
So will the sports world evolve in a similar way -- in how we think of female athletes, how we write about them?