A triumphant Olympics for the U.S. team — especially all those golden female athletes — has come with some nasty aftershocks, raising more potential questions about gender inequality.
Let’s start with Hope Solo, who was suspended for six months and effectively kicked off the national women’s soccer team for some sore-loser comments in the wake of an excruciating defeat.
Still to come, presumably: Ryan Lochte, a 12-time Olympic medalist who awaits his fate for making up a fanciful tale about an armed holdup during a night of drunken revelry not long after the swimming competition ended.
If Lochte’s punishment from USA Swimming or the U.S. Olympic Committee for a much-worse transgression isn’t at least as harsh as the one Solo received, it would logically seem to follow that the old boys club has won out again.
Or does it?
Since the two cases are hardly apples to apples, let’s use them more as a jumping-off point for a serious discussion about sexism in sports. The timing couldn’t be better, coming on the heels of female athletes claiming 61 of the 121 U.S. medals in Rio — including 27 of 46 golds.
“These kinds of cases are really important,” said Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sports management at Drexel University, who plans to talk about both Solo and Lochte in her upcoming classes. “Working with future leaders who are going to move into the industry, they need to be contemplating what the moral issues are and they need to be developing a sense of their own moral compass.”
Solo’s punishment likely ends her long tenure with the national team. After a shootout loss to Sweden and no medal for the mighty American women’s team, the goalkeeper lashed out at the winners, calling them “a bunch of cowards” for their defensive style of play.
It was a silly, ridiculous statement, of course, but many male athletes have said far more outrageous things while feeling the sting of defeat.
Further complicating matters, this was not a one-off for Solo, who’s had plenty of run-ins with teammates and coaches over the years, not to mention a still-pending domestic assault case and a monthlong suspension last year for being in a team van when her husband was arrested on drunken-driving charges.
Which brings us to Lochte, the new poster child for white male entitlement and ugly American behavior.
After getting hammered with three of his teammates, there was an ill-fated stop at a gas station to relieve themselves. What happened next remains a point of contention, but no one can deny that Lochte initially concocted a version of events totally out of touch with reality: robbers posing as police, he said, pulled over the swimmers’ taxi, pointed a gun right at brave Ryan’s head, and robbed him of his wallet and money.
Actually, Lochte and his teammates sparked the whole affair by urinating outside the station, followed by Lochte, according to two of his teammates, ripping down a sign like some out-of-control frat boy. Armed security guards confronted the swimmers and made them pay for the damage, which Brazilian authorities say — and the Americans deny — also included the trashing of a locked restroom. In addition, there are differing accounts of whether the guards pointed guns at the swimmers, which would seem far out of line with the offense.
No matter. It was Lochte’s lies that turned this into an international incident, and prompted both USA Swimming and the USOC to say they’re considering possible sanctions. He already was dropped by four major sponsors, though he has since been picked up by another company and reportedly landed a gig on “Dancing With The Stars.” (Solo already did a stint on the show, it should be noted.)
Amy Randel, a professor in the sports business program at San Diego State University, said Friday that Solo’s previous misconduct skews a direct comparison with Lochte, whose only known misstep before Rio was that horrific, short-lived reality TV show, “What Would Ryan Lochte Do?”
“There is research that shows that women who violate stereotyped behavioral norms face negative consequences for that behavior, while men are given a wider berth for their behaviors,” Randel wrote in an email. “But it is difficult to use that lens to interpret these two cases since there is more involved here than just these athletes’ behavior at the 2016 Olympics.”
Even so, these cases are at least a worthy conduit to keep us all firmly focused on gender equality, a debate I found myself in the midst of at these Olympics.
A newspaper headline over one of my swimming stories created a bit of a kerfuffle on social media, drawing criticism from those who said it was yet another example of how the accomplishments of female athletes always take a backseat to their male counterparts.
Two weeks later, I still think Michael Phelps settling for a silver medal deserved top billing over Katie Ledecky winning gold in world-record time — he is, after all, a 23-time gold medalist — but I can now understand why so many folks took it personally (even when I pointed out that AP didn’t write the headline, and did write an entirely separate story focusing on Ledecky’s amazing Olympic performance).
This issue is far more important than two imperfect athletes or social media trolls.
It’s about ensuring the fair treatment of all those marvelous female athletes.
After wowing us in Rio, they deserve nothing less.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .