Hope Solo Credit: Eugenio Savio/AP
Hope SoloCredit: Eugenio Savio/AP

A journalist scolds an athlete at the risk of sounding like a schoolmarm. Or do I mean an idiot?

That said, do I feel any sympathy for Hope Solo, the U.S. women’s soccer team goalkeeper recently criticized for calling the Swedish team a “bunch of cowards”?

Well no, not exactly—but a case can be made that she served her teammates well after the favored Americans lost on penalty kicks to Sweden in the recent Olympics. It’s only fair to Solo that someone make this case, and as everybody else has been tied up with calling Solo a disgrace to her American uniform, I’ll take a try.

Pundits jumped on Solo and defended Sweden; I particularly enjoyed the nun-with-yardstick reaction of Nancy Armour of USA Today. “This was a win-or-go-home game in the Olympics,” Armour reminded Solo, and all of us. “You do what you need to survive and you don’t owe any apologies.”

Armour lowered the boom. “Hope Solo is a distraction U.S. Soccer can no longer afford. . .” her lecture began. “Solo has embarrassed her team and the country she represents one time too many.” Armour didn’t explain who Solo was distracting, or what she was distracting them from, or why this was a horrible thing to do, but whatever. It’s always safe to call someone who annoys you a distraction.

In her indignation, Armour sometimes lost her grip on her argument. With the U.S. on the brink of defeat, but one last penalty kick to stop, “Solo decided to open up her bag of tricks,” Armour wrote. Putting it that way cast Solo in a lurid light—America’s stand-up representatives don’t resort to trick bags. “With Lisa Dahlkvist standing at the spot, Solo motioned for new gloves and made a show of taking her old ones off and putting the new ones on.” But it didn’t work. Dahlkvist “buried her shot.”

So here was Armour praising the Swedes for doing what they needed to do to survive, and putting Solo in her place for doing the same thing. Armour gave Solo a piece of her mind. “Rather than griping and whining about [the Swedish strategy], take it like a compliment and find a way to break it down,” Armour lectured. “But graciousness and decorum have never been Solo’s strong suit.”

We might have to unpack this a little to appreciate how fast and loose Armour was playing with the time-space continuum. The griping and whining by Solo came after the game. Finding a way to break down the Swedish defense would have involved Solo’s coach and teammates once the game began. And graciousness and decorum had nothing to do with the game whatsoever.

And it’s worth stressing the point that solving the Swedish defense was the responsibility of coach Jill Ellis and everyone else on the American team but Solo. They failed. Yet when the game was lost, nobody paid attention to any of them. No one was held responsible for anything but Solo for her loose tongue, and on Wednesday she was suspended from the national team for six months.

Yes, Solo was a distraction—but perhaps a distraction helpful to her team, not a burden on it. The U.S. lost and she took the heat. But ambiguities rarely get in the way of a seasoned finger-wagger.