Female athletes pay steep price for controversies
If Hope Solo had a squeaky-clean image, it probably wouldn't have endured the events of two weeks ago. She married former NFL tight end Jerramy Stevens on Nov. 13, a day after he was arrested on suspicion of fourth-degree domestic violence at a party.
When the newlyweds posted a photo on Solo's Twitter feed, criticism was quick to follow.
And with other female athletes involved in recent controversial incidents (such as Chamique Holdsclaw's arrest and a Boston College soccer player being suspended for inflammatory tweets), it brings an awareness that women aren't necessarily purer, or more moral, than men. Their nature is just as competitive, and sometimes female icons are just as flawed.
Hall of Fame tennis player Martina Navratilova has seen the headlines generated by Solo and others in recent weeks. While she says some things have changed for female athletes (being openly gay, for example, is less of a taboo now than when she was playing in her prime during the 1980s), the underlying truth for them hasn't.
"I think female athletes, as well as women in general, are held to much higher standards than men," Navratilova said.
There always have been assumptions about how women might behave in certain situations, dating back to when they fought for the right to vote. Back in the 1920s, women were deemed "purer" in nature, and it was thought they could bring about a less quarrelsome political discourse. Today, women who play collegiate sports generally graduate at higher rates and have better overall GPAs than male athletes. Some would say they are better role models and are less likely to be in headlines related to the police blotter.
But when that doesn't happen, Navratilova believes women pay a steeper price.
Navratilova points to Jennifer Capriati's career and notes that stories about the former American tennis star still tend to include mentions of her arrests for shoplifting and marijuana possession during the mid-1990s. In comparison, Navratilova said, male athletes who have DUIs or other legal problems can usually pull away from the controversies over time.
Take Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has seemed to escape much of the stigma from two past sexual-assault allegations, or former NBA player and current television analyst Charles Barkley, who has admitted to gambling problems; neither will likely have those designations in every introduction.
"I think women are much less likely to get in trouble, but it doesn't mean if they do they should be punished more," Navratilova said.
Ann Meyers Drysdale, a Hall of Fame basketball player and president of the Phoenix Mercury, said female athletes are in the public eye, just like their male counterparts, and sometimes it isn't pretty.
"You want to be recognized as an athlete? Fortunately or unfortunately, you will be scrutinized," Meyers Drysdale said. "We are all human, we all make mistakes, especially when matters of the heart are at hand."
When women are taken seriously as athletes, when their achievements are seen as valuable, when they become posters that adorn the walls of a child's bedroom, it's natural for people to take an interest in other aspects of their lives.
"They are going to be scrutinized, and sometimes life takes over, for good or for bad," Meyers Drysdale said.
Holdsclaw's recent arrest, Solo's marriage to Stevens and even the case of Stephanie McCaffery, the Boston College soccer player who was suspended for inflammatory tweets before an NCAA tournament game against Penn State, are reminders that women aren't always sugar and spice.
Marie Hardin, associate director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University, said that despite those comparatively superior academics, it doesn't do women any favors to put them on a moral pedestal when it comes to sports.
"What these ideas about women are doing," Hardin said, "is they justify an attitude about women that says you don't naturally belong in the rough-and-tumble world of competitive sports."
Some of the language -- that women play a more fundamental game -- mimics the language used to describe women's entrance into the male-dominated world of politics after the turn of the 20th century.
When Hardin asks students about the differences between male and female athletes, they will tell her that women are better teammates and are more likely to play by the rules. These ideas don't necessarily do women any favors if they also suggest women aren't competitors by nature.
Despite good looks that could sell everything from mascara to sneakers, Solo has never been a compliant role model. As the goalkeeper wrote in her book, "Solo: A Memoir of Hope":
My family doesn't do happy endings. We do sad endings or frustrating endings or no endings at all. We are hardwired to expect the next interruption or disappearance or broken promise.
Or take Holdsclaw. The circumstances that landed her in the headlines -- allegedly attacking ex-girlfriend Jennifer Lacy and shooting at her car -- come after years of her struggling with depression. Although the allegations are disturbing, Holdsclaw has never pretended to be a perfect role model. As for Twitter, sending impulsive, inflammatory and flat-out stupid tweets -- McCaffery used the Penn State pedophilia scandal as her material -- isn't limited to one gender.
"As much as we've worked to have acceptance and respect, women get scrutinized just like the men do," Meyers Drysdale said.
Being the No. 1 pick in the draft or the goalie on an Olympic gold-medal-winning soccer team doesn't insulate you from making bad decisions. The notoriety may have been inevitable in one sense: Some female athletes have attained as much athletic success as their male counterparts.