What does it take to build a culture?

And what does one gain from tearing it down? Former USWNT teammates Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo chatted on a recent podcast, deriding the team culture as “toxic” despite opposite reports from others in the team.

Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd USWNT teammates on podcast
Artwork by Shivani Khot

USWNT veteran Hope Solo launched a new podcast this month, which stirred up her old rift with her former team and prompted a fresh round of criticism from weary football fans. The former goalkeeper invited recently retired forward Carli Lloyd onto the first episode to discuss their time on the US Women’s National Team, picking apart the recent equal pay settlement (which Lloyd, but not Solo, will benefit from) before Lloyd left fans bristling with an attack on the team’s ‘toxic culture’ since its 2015 World Cup win.

During the time Lloyd described, the team was amping up its pursuit of equal pay in line with the USMNT. Solo was effectively fired from the team in the wake of their disastrous 2016 Olympics campaign after she called the Swedish silver medallists who defeated them “a bunch of cowards”. The team stormed toward a second consecutive World Cup win in 2019, a tournament that Carli Lloyd would later describe as “the worst time of my life,” with Jill Ellis bringing her off the bench to score her three goals during the tournament and playing her in every match. Off the field, the Black Lives Matter movement concentrated growing public fury about the killings of Black people by police hands and weapons, Megan Rapinoe knelt in support of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality (which Lloyd called a distraction) and, by 2020, as protests swept across the US and other countries, it had become a central topic in football discourse. Black players shared their perspectives, NWSL teams began to kneel, US Soccer’s hastily assembled 2016 kneeling ban was rescinded, and racism and abuse across sport became a topic that could no longer be hushed up. 

What we had in the last several years was not a good culture, and the mentality changed, and it became toxic.”

– Carli Lloyd

Fans with a grasp of racial and power dynamics heard a piercing dog-whistle in the use of the word ‘culture’. When Black fans talk about ‘the culture’, they use the word with pride and intention, to gather and uplift the many strands of Black cultural expression, and to reclaim and celebrate the many aspects of Black cultures that have been devalued, appropriated and misrepresented by generations of systemic white supremacy and casual racism. Culture, in this context, is not a word to be used cheaply, least of all by a player who was highly critical of efforts to support the BLM movement, and stood alone, hands on hips, as her teammates knelt before kick-off at the 2020 Olympics in an act of solidarity against racism in football. Lloyd’s inability or unwillingness to even consider this interpretation, or to use her words more thoughtfully, left a lot of room for guesswork.

Lloyd has since replied hotly in social media comments that she didn’t mean it like that. The problem is, when challenged she blocks people or responds with irritation at having to explain herself. If we misconstrue Carli, her vague, allusive style of communication has something to do with that. Online Lloyd often expresses herself in passive-aggressive quotes and cryptic social media digs, then accuses critics of not knowing the full story. She see-saws between insisting she’s speaking her truth and doesn’t care what people think, and calling people “social media warriors” when they call her out. People who truly don’t care don’t usually react so defensively.  

Hope Solo is clearer in her communication, but so much of her rhetoric, including much of her perspective on the equal pay fight, centres herself; what she did, why her approach was best, how she was treated, why she was right and others were wrong, how she got a raw deal. You need more than one person to build a culture, and it’s hard not to read Solo’s complaints about her former teammates as deep resentment and textbook white feminism from someone sidelined by the premature end of her career.

Contrast Solo and Lloyd with other longtime players: the supportive and articulate team captain Becky Sauerbrunn; Christen Press, who chooses her words warmly but with shrewd precision; or Rapinoe, who’s cast as outspoken but again, is deeply specific and intentional in her commentary on the issues she takes on. Or compare Lloyd and Solo with Crystal Dunn. Though arguably the best and most versatile player on the USWNT squad for years, it’s only in the last 18 months that she has described feeling secure enough in her position to share her perspective. She recalled the 2016 tournament: “I’m scared for my job. I’m scared that it’s going to look differently if a Black girl on the team kneels.” Since 2020 she has spoken more candidly and critically of her experiences as a Black player and stepped into a leadership role as vice president and secretary of the USWNT Players’ Association.

“I think 2020, like the rest of the world, has made us realise that it’s OK to hit pause and actually focus on other things that you’re passionate about.”

– Crystal Dunn

Perhaps to some degree, Dunn had the support to finally carve out the space her voice deserves, on a dominantly white team, and discuss things other than football as part of the developing ‘culture’ that Lloyd criticises. Maybe that culture isn’t actually a tangible thing in itself, but an ongoing, complex undoing of a stale, deeply harmful, more traditional sports culture that centres and trusts whiter, louder voices above others and crushes personal expression. Where Lloyd insists that the team stopped having each others’ backs, multiple other players tell an opposing story and describe feeling supported for who they are.

Maybe to Lloyd and Solo, a “good culture” on a sports team means adopting Lloyd’s self-described ‘champion mentality’. What does that look like? 

Does it mean brushing off cheap shots from a cheap president to win the World Cup as a united group? Or 23 very different players having each others’ backs and maintaining a ridiculous winning streak while fighting a landmark legal battle and securing their own financial futures singly and collectively? Perhaps it’s vets and rookies alike using their wins to extend a hand to the marginalised, from critiquing police brutality to supporting trans kids under political and legislative attack in Texas, Alabama and Utah. Does it mean, in Dunn’s case, taking one for the team and compressing who you are, what you’d like to talk about and even which on-field position you’re best suited to, for years, because only white players like Lloyd get to sound off publicly about how many starts they get and what irks them about their own teammates? Lloyd later took to Instagram to insist that the right team culture means that nothing is more important than “the will to win” and “accepting a role and doing it to the best of your ability”, regardless of how many minutes you get, despite complaining extensively in 2019 about not being on the field for the whole of the World Cup. 

The problem with this ‘champion mentality’, as described here, is that it’s dehumanising in its neo-liberal “suck it up and work to the exclusion of all else” tone; it’s distinctly centred on the needs and preferences of senior, white, and in Lloyd’s case, higher-paid players; and it seems less about adherence to a philosophy than the all-consuming hubris of two retired players shifting goalposts around to frame their personal takes and grudges as the blueprint for how everyone else should behave.

It’s also wildly inconsistent. Lloyd, in particular, has doubled down in recent days, speaking to Alexi Lalas to call the team culture ‘toxic’ and railing about teammates’ growing endorsements creating “a shift in people’s mindsets”. “It becomes more about ‘what can I do to build my brand off the field?’”, she recalled. Lloyd added a Visa endorsement deal to her Nike sponsorship after the ’15 WWC, and also picked up deals with Beats by Dre, Heineken and VW among others – posting on Twitter about the car they sent her in 2020 as the pandemic gathered pace.

She told Forbes in January of this year,

“There was a few years in that stretch where I was basically on an airplane every other day, and I would leave training, I would fly to an appearance, I would come back, I’d have to play a game the next day. I knew I had to take every advantage of that moment because that was essentially my future, my family’s future, and would set me up for retirement. So from that moment on, I took every opportunity, event, deal as serious as I did on the field.”

Both players’ memoirs detailed their struggles to bond with their teammates, and that’s something to empathise with. We can’t always vibe with our coworkers, especially if we don’t relate to them. Many marginalised players could surely speak to that experience, particularly in the US where the dominant landscape and marketed image of women’s football has been of white, ponytailed, straight or straight-passing, middle-class “girls next door” whose parents could afford to fund their development. For Lloyd, some of that discomfort seems initially to have been interpersonal and linked to her single-minded pursuit of athletic excellence, while other players had interests or needs beyond that one aim. Solo had a rough early ride on the USWNT, some of it due to her own sizeable screw-ups, but perhaps also due to some stern hazing from the old guard, which one would hope is no longer so prevalent. 

But players build and shape a team culture by taking part in it and adding their voices to the conversation. The USWNT has been slow on the uptake of discussions about racial injustice (compared to, for instance, the WNBA, which protested as a whole league in 2016), and it took one of its players using her voice to get the conversation moving. Treating that conversation with contempt for years and complaining vaguely that it’s being done incorrectly is an exercise in bitterness and futility, and hardly what anyone could call a champion mentality.

Listen. If you don’t want to join in with the growing cultural and civic activities of a team on which you’re one of the very highest paid, you don’t have to, and nobody can force you. Fans in turn have the right to an opinion about your choices, but they remain your choices. You don’t have to share others’ politics or approaches to their careers, or agree with the team consensus. But you can opt out and focus on your wind sprints – or indeed, kneel on your own while your teammates stand, or vice versa five years later – without turning around and taking shots at the women you’ve travelled, trained and played with, and even lifted trophies with. It’s not necessary to devalue their efforts and diminish them for caring about the world they live in or approaching their work differently. The USWNT have shown a large measure of team solidarity with Lloyd, and not taken the bait so far. Even those she’s criticised by name have shown consistent public warmth and support for her as a player and teammate. They also tend, for the most part, to keep Solo’s name out of their mouths, again despite vitriolic and since-debunked accusations from her. 

In hypocritically weaponising terms like ‘toxic culture’ (a term that, as journalist Sophie Lawson pointed out, has become synonymous with very real abuse in sports) to vent against their old teammates, Lloyd and Solo cheapen their own formidable legacies, display what looks suspiciously like an embittered sense of entitlement and resentment at a growing sense of multi-faceted, communal responsibility that they don’t understand, and align themselves, inadvertently or otherwise, with increasingly brutal, regressive world views that claim victimhood while attacking others. Everyone’s entitled to their political leanings, but retweeting hard right publications that denigrate your own teammates, or deflecting nationalist criticism and leaving Black teammates to take the heat instead, as Lloyd did last summer? Not a classy move. 

And yes, anti-racism is political, just as the many-fronted fight for equality, the fight for suffrage, and indeed for women’s right to even play professional football, were and are political. The personal is political because politics affects everyone personally. It isn’t just left/right, conservative/liberal/socialist. It’s about the distribution of power and what is done to people, or for them, with that power, from the legislature to the workplace to the streets. The USWNT’s pursuit of equal pay, which Lloyd and Solo both fought for in their different ways, was righteously political, and so was the overturning of USSF’s ban on players kneeling before games. 

On one hand, why give further oxygen to Lloyd and Solo’s unfocused vitriol? On the other hand, Lloyd justified her comments this week by saying we should talk about it – and in a sense she’s right. When two wealthy white sportswomen with sizeable legacies complain about activism in sport, commercial ambition that at least one of them pursued heavily, and a team culture they disdained despite benefiting from it, the implication – even if they can’t own up to it – is that the things that matter to Black, brown and LGBTQIA+ players, fans and allies don’t matter to them; that their perspective is more important and authentic, and that these people shouldn’t ask for the same rights, platform or opportunities as them. That bears some scrutiny. 

The unspoken message behind the rigid emphasis on the “will to win” without consideration for anything else is that the cost of humanity and community is failure. Having disdained the culture of their former team, Solo and Lloyd are now cheered on by the sort of eggbots that habitually decry the USWNT as unpatriotic and delight in any arrows aimed at its more progressive voices. White supremacy, with its pitiless mistrust of anyone outside the straight white default, is a ‘culture’ of sorts, but echoing its talking points to vent some bitterness about your former team is… a hell of a choice. If you don’t mean it that way, why consistently act in ways that suggest you do? Grumbling about misinterpretation after the fact is like complaining about your opponents after you’ve given away a quarter-final. 

Solo’s chagrin is at least somewhat relatable, with a phenomenal sporting career scarred by an ugly and premature ending, though her anger feels misplaced and coloured by a personal grudge. But Carli Lloyd just closed a long and decorated playing career on her own terms, with a lavish send-off from the employers she’ll now claim a hefty chunk of back-pay from, if the CBA comes through. After all that, does she really feel hard done by because her teammates didn’t share her particular outlook? Is there more to it? We could hazard some guesses, but Lloyd hates it when people do that. In the absence of anything more concrete, her parting shots feel petty and groundless, borne of an overbearing need to have the last word.

Gen Williams

Having survived fifteen years in the music industry, Gen works in comms and sits on the board of her local club's Supporters' Trust. With a passion for women's game, she follows far too many teams, including OL Reign, the USWNT and her beloved Dulwich Hamlet, and has an expensive habit of getting on planes for the football.