Lawsuits

Hope Solo Wins a Battle, But War With U.S. Soccer Far From Decided

It must feel like Hope Solo is far more involved with U.S. Soccer now than she ever was as a player. Though she featured in over 200 games for the U.S. Women’s national teams (to say nothing of the countless sponsorship and marketing appearances), since her…let’s call it controversial end to her role with the Federation, she has in some ways become the tip of the spear for grievances against the way the Federation operates.

Even before she was fired from the Federation (U.S. Soccer pays the salaries of national team players), in April 2016 Solo joined with a group of female national team players who filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging pay discrimination. She has since filed a lawsuit, as have other current/former members of the USWNT. Those cases are still working their way through the legal system, so more on that at another time.

After her “outburst” in the aftermath the 2016 Olympics loss to Sweden, the Federation terminated her contract and suspended her for six months, a move that she suspected was a pretext for getting rid of a player the Federation no longer wanted to deal with. Solo then returned to prominence in the U.S. Soccer scene, announcing a run for President of the Federation in December 2017. Solo didn’t win, but she lit the place up before she was done.

In fact, during that presidential run, Solo filed a grievance with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), alleging essentially a complete failure of the Federation in its responsibilities to its members, and arguing that the relationship with MLS rendered them derelict in their duties in basically every way. The case was dismissed by the USOC because the Federation successfully argued that Solo didn’t comply with the bylaws requiring her to go through the Federation’s grievance process before going to the USOC (confused yet?).

The USOC is empowered by statute (the Ted Stevens Act) to charter National Governing Bodies who regulate specific sports. The U.S. Soccer Federation is in charge of soccer of course, and sets up its own bylaws to govern the sport here. Among those bylaws are a process for resolving grievances…like the one Solo filed. The Federation farms out their grievance process to an outside independent arbitration panel to resolve issues; first to a single arbitrator with an appeal to a panel.

Solo in her grievance originally argued that going through the Federation’s administrative process was pointless, because it was illegal, didn’t follow the USOC bylaws, and forcing her to comply with (in her words) an illegal Federation bylaw would waste time. When the USOC ruled against her in July 2018, she appealed to the arbitration panel. Which takes us to what happened Thursday.

Solo announced the panel had ruled in her favor, ordering the USOC to hear her grievance. The ruling was (in my opinion) fairly scathing, concluding the Federation’s procedure for resolving grievances is not in compliance with either USOC bylaws or the Stevens Act.

Particularly, the panel found that the Federation does not comply with the 20% Athlete representation requirement on committees and panels resolving grievances. Because the Arbitration panel found the Federation’s bylaws in violation of the USOC and the Stevens Act, they concluded that forcing Solo to go through that process would be pointless and cause unnecessary delay.

So, Solo can pass “GO” and go directly to the USOC. But what does this mean?

Not a ruling on the merits:

This ruling is certainly a win for Solo (she was even awarded $30,000 in fees), but it has essentially nothing to do with the merits of the case. It didn’t even necessarily conclude that the Federation’s internal procedures for resolving grievances were incorrect; they basically punted on that issue. It’s possible the Federation argues there is some internal procedure Solo must exhaust before going to the USOC. But I’m not sure, and I don’t think the Federation is either.

This is probably going to be a mess:

I was able to contact the Federation for this column to get their perspective. Aside from thinking I’d overstated my conclusions a bit about how much of a win this was for Solo, it’s fair to say they dispute that they are in violation of USOC bylaws (and by extension the Stevens Act). They noted in their most recent USOC compliance audit, they passed with flying colors.

The USOC compliance report (03/19/19) says the Federation is doing just fine.

So what the heck is going on here? If the arbitration panel is saying that the Federation is in violation of the Stevens Act, then either the USOC is too or somebody isn’t doing their job.

I suppose it’s possible that the USOC determined that the Federations internal grievance policies are sufficient, but they didn’t reject Solo’s claims for failure to exhaust those remedies. Or did they? As far as I can tell, the USOC’s ruling was never released and the independent arbitration panel obviously didn’t think so.

I think it’d be fair to characterize the Federation’s response to this ruling as: bemused. Or confused. While the Stevens Act authorizes this arbitration panel to hear appeals, the Federation is “governed” by the USOC. So the sense I get is that if the arbitrators are telling the Federation their bylaws are wrong, but the USOC says they’re right, isn’t the real problem with the USOC? And does that mean that USOC bylaws have to be modified? I honestly don’t know.

So the next step is for this to head back to the USOC panel, where the Federation will figure out what they want to do. Will they ask for dismissal again on procedural grounds, or on the substance (there is still a motion for a dismissal due to what they see as Solo’s failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted). We’re going to have to wait and see. In the meantime the war rages on.

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1 reply »

  1. I have to say the fact that this process is so shrouded in secrecy is probably the biggest black mark against both the federation and the USOC. I get that maybe you don’t want to release the blow by blow transcripts, but you’d think at least explaining publicly why you ruled the way you did would be helpful to make this process not seem so corrupt. Then again, this is the combination of a FIFA organization and an Olympics organization, the perfect storm of corruption.

    Like

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