Those who go against the grain, who push for change, who question the status quo are not the sort who are universally cherished. Making a difference can be a struggle. It can divide, it can offend, it can cast you aside.
“It’s still lonely,” says Hope Solo, arguably the greatest female goalkeeper in history, of life as a plain-speaking fighter for equality.
“It’s popular to state that you stand for equality, but to actually take a risk and fight for it, that’s an entirely different story.”
The finest goalkeeper of her generation, Solo hasn’t played for the United States since her contract was terminated after the Rio 2016 Olympics for “conduct that is counter to the organization’s principles.”
Calling Sweden’s team a “bunch of cowards” after defeat was effectively the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Is Solo an outspoken troublemaker or a tireless reformer? There are those who could argue at length for and against.
Former international teammate Abby Wambach has described the 36-year-old’s sacking as a “lifetime achievement award,” a consequence of a decade of misdemeanors: the forthright views, the arrests, the suspensions.
Solo, the first goalkeeper to achieve 100 clean sheets in international football, believes she was dismissed by US Soccer because hers was the loudest voice in the women’s team’s battle for equal pay. A claim the federation tells CNN is “100% false.”
The two-time Olympic champion and World Cup winner – one of only three goalkeepers to have won the women’s World Cup and Olympic gold – admits that, toward the end of her career especially, she had become a thorn in US Soccer’s side.
“That’s when they fired me,” says the American, raising an eyebrow.
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On a summer’s morning in London, the immaculately dressed Solo is in a plush hotel in the shadow of the Tower of London as a guest speaker for the Foundation for Sports Integrity’s inaugural conference.
She is one of a number of high-profile attendees here to discuss whether world soccer’s governing body FIFA is undermining the “beautiful game.”
After leaving Washington for rural North Carolina following Rio 2016, setting up home with her husband, former NFL player Jerramy Stevens, for a life of idyllic seclusion with their dogs, Solo has this year slipped back into the spotlight.
She is back fighting. A Twitter feed that was low-key in 2017 is firing again.
Though her bid to replace Sunil Gulati as president of US Soccer failed – the February election was won by former vice president Carlos Cordeiro – Solo is still pushing to change the federation that fired her, an organization she feels has failed the sport in her country.
“I was never going to give up for what I believe in,” she says defiantly, removing any doubt that the former Dancing with the Stars contestant is for a quiet life. Silence doesn’t suit her.
In January, she filed a legal complaint against the federation and called on the US Olympic Committee (USOC) to act and, along with Sports Fans Coalition (SFC), is behind a petition demanding a hearing at the US Senate on US Soccer’s failure to “advance the game of soccer at all levels.”
She describes the men’s inability to qualify for this summer’s World Cup in Russia as “unacceptable but not surprising” and argues that the federation’s failure to nurture young talent from all backgrounds has made the sport in her country the reserve of “rich white kids.”
The Washington native is a rare breed of athlete: she offers an opinion, plenty of it, and answers whatever questions are thrown her way, even if experience would tell her that being upfront usually causes a stir.
Did she support the recently successful joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the United States to host the 2026 World Cup? Not really. Will she represent her country again? Not until there’s equal pay.
What would she change to improve soccer in America? Lots. How has she felt since her sacking? Like an outcast.
Nearly two years since her contract was terminated, the woman who was voted the outstanding goalkeeper of the past two World Cups is still unsure whether to use the past or the present tense to describe her 17-year international career. Is it finished or simply on hold?
“Saying former US goalkeeper sounds weird, but I guess maybe that’s what I am,” she says when asked to introduce herself into the barrel of a CNN camera.
Solo has never been one to retreat. Her list of controversies is nearly as long as her accomplishments.
In 2007 she was shunned by the national team for several months after criticizing coach Greg Ryan for starting her on the substitutes’ bench for a World Cup semifinal.
At the 2012 Olympics she used Twitter to publicly criticize former player Brandi Chastain, who was working as a commentator for NBC.
Then in 2014 came the arrest on domestic violence charges – which were dropped last month – and in 2015 a 30-day suspension from the US team after her husband was arrested on drunken-driving charges while he and Solo were in a team van.
There are those who will reason that US Soccer was willing to weather each storm while there was no one to supplant Solo between the sticks.
But after the goalkeeper criticized Sweden for the conservative style they played to eliminate the US at the quarterfinal stage of the Rio Olympics, she was suspended from the national team for six months and had her contract terminated.
It was an unsporting remark, not in keeping with the spirit of the Games. It was a barb too far.
Seven words tattooed on her back would succinctly summarize her interpretation of events: persecuted not forsaken; cast down not destroyed.
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The passing months have been tough for a woman who describes herself as possessing a softer side to the tough exterior often on public display. “Lonely” is a word that crops up throughout the interview.
She has received messages of support from teammates, but few have publicly backed her.
There has also been the now-typical offshoot of the social media age: scathing posts on Twitter. “More messages than you could ever imagine,” Solo says, laughing.
“It hurts. I’m not this tough woman that everyone thinks I am.
“I couldn’t get beat down, I couldn’t get emotional, I couldn’t read social media.
“I found a way to protect myself, my heartache and pain, and my disbelief in the direction we were heading, and I think having a great support system and good people around you is a good way to do that.”
Before Rio 2016, Solo was one of five prominent US soccer stars who filed a complaint on behalf of the team with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accusing US Soccer of wage discrimination.
They wore T-shirts with the slogans “Equal Play Equal Pay” at media events, while the federation sued the players’ union representing the team to enforce its collective bargaining agreement.
Different compensation structures for the men’s and women’s teams were at the heart of the disagreement.
But in April 2017, when Solo had left Washington for North Carolina, the world champions agreed to a new deal that runs through to 2021, covering the 2019 World Cup in France and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The new terms include generous increases in base pay and match bonuses, better per diem allowances, enhanced travel benefits and increased financial support for players who are pregnant, but the agreement does not necessarily guarantee the women’s team equal pay with their male counterparts.
“Had I still been on the team I absolutely would’ve put my foot down and never signed any contract that’s not equal because from the onset that’s what we were fighting for,” says an impassioned Solo.
“We’re not fighting for something that’s better, we’re fighting for equality because that’s US federal law and that’s what we all said we believed in but, at the end of the day, the current players signed a contract that’s not equal.”
Though Solo is not under contract with US Soccer, head coach Jill Ellis is still permitted to select her for national duty. She has recovered from the shoulder surgery she underwent during her suspension.
But if the current pay deal remains unchanged – and there has been no sign of unrest publicly among the current squad – the US has seen the last of its high-profile goalie, a player who has recorded an incredible 102 clean sheets in 202 games.
“The US needs a good goalkeeper and it would be an honor to play in the World Cup in France,” says Solo with typical matter-of-fact confidence.
“I will not stand for a federation that doesn’t pay their women equally to the men and until they abide by federal law you will not see me back on the field with US Soccer.
“If US Soccer wants to abide by federal law I will gladly play in the World Cup in France next year.”
Solo is a woman making her voice heard in a world that is slow to change. Soccer players, especially high-earning male superstars, are seen but rarely heard.
Why make a stand when the easiest way to add millions to the brand is to achieve on the pitch and keep quiet off it? Just ask Colin Kaepernick of the consequences of shaking up the status quo.
But this is an age when there is fresh interest in women’s rights. The vigor of the #Metoo movement has offered a new hope for those who have longed for change.
“It’s a popular time right now to fight for equality,” says Solo.
“People wear T-shirts – that’s the easy way. Actually doing something about it, meeting with congressmen and women, going public about it, meeting US Senators and actually trying to come up with a game plan on how to create change, that’s a lonely world.
“It was lonely when I was fighting behind the scenes against my employer, US Soccer.
“I was fighting for better doctors, better trainers, better fields, marketing, more ticket sales. I was fighting for everything.
“I didn’t understand why we weren’t flying first class and the men got chartered flights. There was no real justification for it. I kept asking those questions over and over again.
“It’s been a lonely journey, but we’re getting to the point in time where I’m meeting a lot of brilliant people who are pushing for equality.
“We’re making gigantic strides and not just in football, but everywhere you look in society around the world.
“It’s a time of empowerment, but it’s against a huge backdrop of inequality that we have faced since the beginning of time.”
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Her determination, her desire to make the world fairer, is innate, she says.
Growing up in Washington as a self-confessed daddy’s girl, this daughter of an Italian-American Vietnam War veteran who drifted in and out of prison was surrounded by strong female role models: Judy, her “incredible” mother, once a semi-professional skier, and her grandmother, Alice Shaw.
At heart, she is still the spirited nine-year-old who physically confronted someone for taunting a child with a learning disability.
“This kid on his bike was a bully and I told him to be quiet and pushed him off his bike,” Solo says. She smiles broadly as she remembers the first time she tried to right a wrong.
“I ended up in the principal’s office. I went home and my mom told me she was proud of me for standing up for somebody who was unable to stand up for themselves.”
“I always pushed for more,” adds Solo, describing her younger self.
“I always had those questions as a young girl, without knowing that I was quote, unquote, a feminist.
“I didn’t understand why we always watched the men’s games on television, or the NBA, and you didn’t see many women’s footballers on TV.
“I know I’m doing something right when I have a father tell me they want their young girl growing up strong, opinionated and be able to stand up on her own two feet without having to hide her true self.”