'It's peace' - NWSL secures historic and badly needed CBA agreement after scandal-plagued 2021

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There were rare emotions flowing late Monday evening, feelings that had become maddeningly unfamiliar to anybody invested in the NWSL recently.

Positivity. Optimism. Elation. Relief.

All the result of the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) ratifying its first ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

“This makes me feel so warm inside,” Kaiya McCullough, the ex-player who kicked off a league-wide reckoning last year said on Twitter. “I think it’s peace.”

Indeed, the historic CBA averted a work stoppage on the eve of preseason and provided a desperately needed win for the league and its players after an autumn and winter of discontent.

“We want a new, fresh NWSL, and the way to not relive the 2021 season and instead rebuild our league into what we know it can be, is to start from day one with a CBA,” NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke told GOAL.

“It’s something that everyone at the NWSL should be proud of,” Burke added. “It took a lot of collective work and effort and I think it really sets the NWSL on a positive trajectory for the future.”

The unprecedented five-year agreement provides an essential level of stability and freedom to the NWSL’s players, many of whom have suffered indignities no employee – whether office worker or world-class athlete – should ever experience.

The NWSLPA had been pushing for a CBA long before a cascading series of scandals in 2021, but those incidents added a new urgency to negotiations, and shaped what the PA prioritized.

“I think the honest answer is that you can't untangle those things,” Burke said, referring to the reckoning over abuse in 2021 and CBA talks.

“They were absolutely happening at the same time and on the minds of everyone involved.”

Several of the provisions in the new CBA can be viewed as direct responses to the NWSL’s scandal-plagued 2021.

A system of free agency has been introduced and while freedom of movement is something any pro athlete desires, it is especially vital in the NWSL after several players lamented the lack of an escape hatch when playing under abusive coaches.

A boost in the minimum salary from $22,000 (£16,000) to $35,000 (£26,000) provides more financial stability to players on the bottom end of rosters – a group who, in several cases, were allegedly targeted by predatory coaches due to their lack of power and influence.

And NWSL teams will be required to provide, among other medical personnel, a sports psychologist and team clinician to administer mental health services.

Players will also be granted up to six months of paid mental health leave. Burke told GOAL that she believes this provision is the first of its kind in professional sports.

“I think [the scandals] helped illustrate in a very human way why free agency was so important, why higher wages were so important, why players having more autonomy and control over their careers was so important,” Burke said.

“[Having] up to six months paid mental health leave, there’s no better way to articulate why that's so important than to understand what happened last year.”

In their press release announcing the deal, the NWSLPA included a poignant message to past players.

Some had simply aged out, but others have been forced out due to abuse, inadequate pay, lack of career autonomy or substandard institutional support.

“To the players who came before us: We stand on your shoulders. We hope we made you proud.”

Burke, a former pro player herself, said: “When we say we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, it's a metaphor.

"But it's a fact that we would not be here without decades and maybe, if you go back that far, 100 years' worth of work and sacrifice, and players who never got to experience what the future generations will.”

To be clear, the CBA is not some kind of magic elixir that will rid the league of the issues that have plagued it for years.

Salaries are up but those on the lower end of the spectrum are still far from financially secure. Free agency provies freedom of movement for some, but not all.

Investigations into alleged abuses are ongoing, with few tangible results as of now.

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There is still a frayed relationship between players and NWSL leadership that won’t be rebuilt by one CBA agreement.

But suffice it to say, the last thing a beleaguered NWSL needed was a players’ strike to kick off a 2022 campaign during which it hopes to begin a long healing process.

For the first time in a while, there is optimism about where the league is going.