Hope Solo's domestic abuse case has made it difficult for media commentators on ESPN and Fox Sports 1 to cover the team objectively.
The one thing you hope for when you speak to sports television executives is honesty. Production and talent evaluations are always subjective but honesty between reporters and subjects earns respect on both sides. Prior to the start of Fox’s Women’s World Cup tournament coverage, I interviewed David Neal, the executive producer of Fox’s Women’s World Cup coverage and a longtime NBC Sports executive. One of the questions I posed to him was how Fox’s soccer analysts would balance between wanting the U.S. to advance and being objective to the opposition. In that answer, Neal offered insight into a conversation that occurred Sunday afternoon on Fox Sports 1’s FIFA Women’s World Cup studio show.
Said Neal to SI.com: “If Kelly [Smith] or Ari [Ariane Hingst] or Monica [Gonzalez] or Heather [Mitts] refer to their former team as ‘we’ on occasion, not only do we not think this is the end of the world, but we think it’s authentic to the viewer.”
For me, as a viewer, the best sports analysts are those no longer beholden to their past athletic lives. They are analysts first, not a former player-turned analyst. My thought is that if you are still beholden to a former team or university or teammate, you can’t fully represent the viewer. Some would argue no sports analyst is truly separate from their former life and if so, then I tend to favor those who come closest to that ideal.
On Sunday, ESPN’s "Outside The Lines" reporter Mark Fainaru-Wada reported that police records, 911 transcripts from the night in question, June 20, 2014, and sworn depositions given by Teresa Obert (Hope Solo’s half-sister) and her son, contradicted what Solo has said in television interviews and published reports (including an ESPN The Magazine piece). Furthermore Obert told ESPN that neither she nor her son was contacted by U.S. Soccer and ESPN “found no evidence that anyone with U.S. Soccer contacted prosecutors or police involved with the case, either.”
As a viewer—and I make no presumption that I’m speaking for others—Fainaru-Wada’s reporting was significant news, and especially given how much domestic abuse and sports have intersected in the public sphere over the past 24 months. Like I said, I want analysts to represent me but what I saw on Sunday from Fox Sports 1’s Women’s World Cup analysts was the opposite. Most of the panel came off as auxiliary PR for Hope Solo and U.S. Soccer.
In a way, I thank them because it illuminated how they'll approach such off-field issues. I now will view them under that premise.
On the subject of the Fainaru-Wada’s report (for some reason, Fox seemed to avoid using the word ESPN), here is what analyst Leslie Osborne, a former U.S National Team member who played with Solo, said when prompted by host Rob Stone:
“Old news. It’s old news to us. It’s old news to the team. We should have been talking more about this previously. We are now at the World Cup. Why are we focusing on Hope Solo and what she did previously? Right now, we are focusing on what their job is and what they are going to do to be successful in this tournament.”
Given the amount of new details ESPN broke just hours prior to Osborne’s comment, calling this old news seemed surprising. The case might be old; the news was not. Stone himself followed minutes later by calling it a “new revelation.”
Angela Hucles, another former U.S. National team member who played with Solo, followed up by questioning the timing of the ESPN report. Analyst Heather Mitts, who also played with Solo, offered some sarcasm: “Guess what, Australia and the U.S. play tomorrow,” Mitts said, as if the Fox audience would not be reminded of that 1,000 times over the next 24 hours.
Eventually the conversation found its way to analyst Eric Wynalda, also a former U.S. national team member. “This stuff is starting to get annoying to me. Save it for Judge Judy,” Wynalda said. “I really don’t need to know what is going on the outside of the field right now.”
That remarkable statement, the low point of the discussion, was followed by Osborne discussing Solo’s therapy, blog-writing and humanity. I found Alexi Lalas the most tolerable of the analysts but he was all over the map. He did ask an interesting question on whether off the field issues fueled Solo on the field as an athlete. Stone was the only person on the panel who repeatedly offered viewers some context on the intersection of domestic violence and sports and why it was indeed news.
As the discussion continued, I appreciated Solo’s former teammates, and Hucles in particular, explaining the bond they shared with Solo. This at least got to the issue. “We played with Hope in the past and we want to see positive changes go on in her life,” Hucles said.
To Fox Sports 1’s credit, they covered the entire press conference for U.S. National Team coach Jill Ellis and player Carli Lloyd, the kind of coverage you want to see if you are invested in the World Cup. The analysts were more even-handed on Solo after the press conference, though Osborne strangely said “we could have gotten to this before the World Cup” and it was unclear if she was referring to a reporter breaking news prior to the event or the authorities clearing things up before the start of the event.
Near the end of the show, Wynalda seemed fed up with the conversation. “I’m just kind of hoping we can get to the point where we can talk about the World Cup,” Wynalda said. “I’m at the World Cup right now. I don’t want to talk about domestic violence. I understand it’s a story. I don’t want to talk about FIFA. I want to start talking about how this team is going to play in the World Cup.”
Wynalda has every right to feel that way as an analyst and as a viewer I have every right not to watch the group he was part of heading forward. I like what Fox has done with its game coverage but my first experience with its studio group was severely disappointing. If I see this particular group on air again before or after games, I’m likely heading elsewhere for analysis.