News Matches
NWSL

Several incidents point to same question: Is the NWSL protecting its players enough?

15:00 BST 25/08/2021
NWSL GFX
The league has been placed on the defensive on multiple occasions in 2021 as its players ask for better protection

In some ways, it’s never been a better time to be a National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) player.

The league has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. There is a new media-rights deal and TV ratings are up, a highly respected commissioner is on board, salaries – though still not where they should be – continue to grow, and expansion has brought new, high-profile teams and owners in major markets.

After previous American top-flight women’s leagues failed to make it more than three seasons, next season will be the NWSL's 10th. More expansion is being planned in the future. The league’s trajectory and demonstrated sustainability are both novel and heartening.

"We are growing at a rate not seen in professional sports, maybe ever," NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird told reporters this month.

But while the league has plenty of recent wins to boast about, there is still a brewing crisis on several fronts that points to the same underlying question: Are NWSL players being sufficiently protected?

The trouble started in April after Chicago Red Stars defender Sarah Gorden accused Houston Dash security of racial profiling.

The Dash responded with a tone-deaf statement that inspired so much backlash the club was forced to quickly release a new statement admitting its initial words were “off the mark".

Then came the NWSL investigation, which was closed with no action taken and – perhaps even more frustratingly – very little explanation as to how that conclusion was reached. The league said that was down to “confidentiality restrictions in the policy.”

Red Stars players fumed.

Tierna Davidson said the investigation’s conclusion was “disappointing to say the least”, while Kayla Sharples added: “Where is the support and solidarity? I believe Sarah Gorden.”

Nikki Stanton charged: “Extremely disappointing. I believe you, Sarah Gorden. We need to work harder towards an environment where players feel protected and supported.”

But NWSL players would be forgiven for feeling that support has been lacking. The league-produced TV broadcasts have been another area in which the NWSL has fallen short of the mark.

When OL Reign and Canada midfielder Quinn was misgendered during an April broadcast, perhaps it could be generously dismissed as an early-season hiccup.

When it happened again this month – in a pre-written segment after Quinn made worldwide headlines as the first transgender Olympic gold medalist no less – there was no excusing away the disrespect.

Those weren’t the only discouraging broadcast mishaps this year. In June, the league showed someone purported to be Jessica McDonald’s son during a broadcast. But, as McDonald put it, the child was actually “some random black kid in the stands.”  

Baird was forced to apologize.

In yet another black eye for the league – and the Washington Spirit in particular – the capital club was forced to dispense with coach Richie Burke earlier this month following a bombshell Washington Post report stating he had been verbally abusive to his players.  

Burke’s actions on their face were bad enough, but the Spirit compounded the crisis at every step. The club never should have hired Burke in the first place after credible reports of abusive behavior arose after his appointment in 2019.

By giving him the job anyway, the Spirit gave Burke an undeserved pass at best, and tacitly endorsed his past actions at worst. It was far from a surprise, then, to see him simply carry over the same behavior into his tenure with the Spirit. 

Baird, who was not commissioner when Burke was hired, insisted that the league and ownership now have strong vetting processes in place for new hires, including an anti-harassment policy.

The Spirit initially tried to sweep Burke’s behavior under the rug by stating he’d been “re-assigned to the Spirit front office” due to “health concerns”.

Baird tried to distance the NWSL from the Spirit's cover-up, saying: "The league was not involved in the statement in Burke's initial stepping down."

Only after the Post report emerged, featuring on-the-record accounts of abuse from former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough, did the Spirit acknowledge reality, and even then they did so in a way that strained credulity.

Owner Steve Baldwin claimed in a statement that the club was not aware of the allegations against Burke until after he resigned as coach. Why Burke would have resigned in the first place if Baldwin’s claim was true is anybody’s guess.

While NWSL players have been upset by their off-field treatment in 2021, their protection on the pitch itself has also been lacking.

Refereeing across the league has been substandard this year. Red Stars coach Rory Dames fumed after two of his players exited the stadium on crutches after a game earlier this month. 

“We have two players on crutches that probably have to get MRIs tomorrow,” Dames lamented, “on tackles that have no business being in the league, both of which were from behind. One was a blatant red.

“If that’s going to be tolerable in the league, then more players are going to leave the league.” 

Baird has conceded that there is a problem with NWSL referees.

“We need officiating in our league that matches the talent of the players on the pitch,” Baird said. “I don’t think anyone is satisfied right now.”

Baird said that the NWSL is adding a new ‘‘technical director’’ position to work with PRO, the organization overseeing the league’s officials. Additionally, Baird said the league was considering the implementation of VAR. 

Those would be welcome developments for sure, but they would be essentially unilateral moves under the status quo. Underpinning all of the aforementioned issues is the lack of a collective bargaining agreement between the league and its players.

Without a CBA, the balance of power is overwhelmingly in favor of the league and its clubs, while players have very little say. Such a system helps allow abuses like Burke's to occur.

“The head coach is the power broker in a system of rules built on disempowering players,” Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL Players Association told the Washington Post.

“It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that players would be reluctant to speak out when a coach abuses his authority.”

Last year, the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association began negotiations to establish the first CBA between the two parties. 

For the league and especially its players, an agreement cannot come soon enough.