Why We Make Women Athletes Into Villains

Sports officials are choosing to send a clear message to young female athletes: adhere to the sexist double-standard, or leave.

Seattle Reign goalkeeper Hope Solo is on "indefinite leave" after comments made during the Olympics. Credit: Evaristo Sa/Getty

Hope Solo makes a great sports villain.

Solo's indefinite "personal leave" from the Seattle Reign all but culminates the saga not just of her ill-fated commentary on Sweden's slow television style of play in Rio, but a tumultuous career dogged by sins, both real and perceived – though she's hardly the first athlete to have a contentious record.

Ostensibly her dominant performances should have earned her the redemption story arc that often accompanies athletic antagonists (see: Lebron James). But a redemption story implies one very specific characteristic: humility (see: Lebron James' delightful State Farm commercials). And Solo, with her bare minimum public apologies, has never come off as quite repentant. But if Solo is going to be stripped of her victories in the court of public opinion, it makes you wonder: who's really benefitting here?

This was supposed to be the year female athletes didn't need the word "female" caveated before their job description. This was going to be the year that we stopped reading phoned-in headlines about what "playing like a girl" really looks like. This was the year that, for every reductive cliché lobbed at them over decades past, the women who had nothing to prove to begin with went out and did the damn thing anyways.

The narrative felt different this year too; far less demurely downplayed "I'm just happy to be here" post-conference pressers were recited, swapped out for honest admissions of how much dedication, focus and practice went into the victory. While Ryan Lochte was busy imitating an episode of what his failed reality show could have been, four-time gold medalist for this year alone, Katie Ledecky, was in the pool practicing at 1 a.m. – a brief respite from her usual two-a-day 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. workouts. Simone Biles may have been new to Team USA this year, but those three world championships she won prior didn't win themselves. (Both Ledecky and Biles have been called the Michael Jordan of their respective sports. Repeatedly.)

Outside of the Olympics, a similar story circulates. Current Wimbledon champion Serena Williams achieved another Serena Slam, 12 years and multiple injuries after her first. Ballerina Misty Copeland isn't seen as a dancer so much as she is an athlete, a distinction clarified further by Under Armour snapping her up as a brand ambassador. If there was ever an argument for why Title IX is more important than ever, 2016 was the year that proved the case – which is precisely why the stakes seem higher for Solo and other female athletes.

Women have a chance to become role models writ large rather than singular success stories –  but is that pedestal just a pair of rose gold handcuffs?

It's no surprise that female athleticism has had such a bright spotlight on it, given the rapidly declining standards of behavior male athletes seem keen on rolling out. While the men are out here untying each other's shoes and selling out their teammates, the women have a chance to become role models writ large rather than singular success stories – and not just for budding female athletes, but for all young competitors, regardless of gender. But is that pedestal just a pair of rose gold handcuffs?

The respectability politics of female athleticism have never come under real scrutiny before because, well, female athletes were never really under scrutiny before. But to hold them to a standard of behavior based on what we want our athletes to exude – professionalism, dedication, veins cold as ice – is a tenuous game to play given that our standards for sportsmanship are a constantly moving target (in this case, a target moving closer rather than farther with each Snapchatted dick pic, I suppose). And that's saying nothing of the double standard female athletes are held to in public behavior – no need to look further than Locthe's non-apology, or Cristiano Ronaldo airing the same complaint Solo did, this time about the Icelandic soccer team's "small mentality" style of play.

It's not the hypocrisy that is alarming, though no doubt, the chafe isn't pleasant; it's how its being used to beat female athletes into personality submission, ostensibly in pursuit of behavior we're no longer getting from our male competitors. The model of the infallible role model has long been gone from sports, yet we still revere it as if its possible and are scandalized when what we never had is snatched away. With female athletes poised to continue their dominance in multiple sports, alongside a momentum-gaining campaign to secure equal pay and equal rights, the stage is set for a new standard of athletic role models. And yet, sports officials like Sunil Gulati, president of the USSF, are choosing to send a very clear message to young female athletes: adhere to the double-standard, or leave.

I'll spare you the soliloquy on how athletes are humans too, but consider this: seeing the warts and all of our athletes – especially female athletes – might be the most formative thing to happen to female sports since Title IX. Whether you agree or disagree with Solo's public disavowal on Sweden (or Jill Ellis, or whether she should have been used in 2012), it sets another metric of what a female athlete can be; in this case unrepentantly outspoken. Maybe you are a two-a-day Ledecky, or you're a Rob Gronkowski, where talent is primary only to one other thing: partying. Either way, by allowing athletes to be themselves, the data points for behavior to parrot and behavior to avoid become much clearer; the fallibility of pro athletes less jarring when it occurs.

Male sports fans have long had a rich tapestry of pro athlete work ethics to emulate and those to avoid, but by forcing female athletes into a narrow box of what they can and cannot say or do isn’t just a hypocrisy; it's gaslighting a future generation of female athletes into submission, one press conference at a time.