As antsy as fans are getting without sports, it’s just as bad, if not worse for the players. As the National Women’s Soccer League continues to push back preseason start date and COVID-19 isolation stretches into the vague near future without concrete dates, even the most disciplined mind starts to get twitchy. New NWSL Players Association president Tori Huster, stepping up to fill the gap by the departing Brooke Elby, was on the phone with All for XI last week to talk about what the PA is doing to support its players at this time, and what it’s been like waiting for an uncertain season.
Their top priority throughout this all has been communication, facilitating the flow of information between the league and the players. “I think communication has been pretty good,” said Huster. “We’re hearing directly from the league, which has been different than usual. Most of the time we’ll hear from the club what the league has said. And as a players association, we’ve now asked the league to send out any information that needs to be sent directly to the players. Not that it’s bad to include the club, but if you have the league to the club to the players, things can get lost in translation. So we’re asking the league to send out any pertinent information directly to the players and then in addition to that, Brooke and Yael [Averbuch] have been absolutely fantastic. The league has been communicating with them after any ownership calls that they have just to explain what is happened on those ownership calls.”
Sometimes the information is simply that there is no new information, but even that has been helpful - better to know there’s no movement than to sit in the dark. In an information vacuum, Huster pointed out, those not in the know tend to fill in the gaps with their own assumptions. “I think as an executive board we’ve talked every single day throughout this entire situation,” she said.
An example of the kind of thing the PA is translating for the players was getting clarification on who is giving the orders during isolation. The Centers for Disease Control and various states were beginning to recommend shelter-in-place measures just as many players were arriving in market with their teams in anticipation of preseason; some of them wanted to know if they should stay where they were, or go home, and if so, how they should do it. Some players had extenuating circumstances that made it more pressing that they be allowed to leave market during this period. And they were obviously divided up over nine different states, all of them with varying responses to the encroaching pandemic. “We didn’t know if we were supposed to listen to the club or if the league had the process,” said Huster, “But I believe the league handed over the reigns for each market because each of the markets are different.” An obvious answer, perhaps, but the kind of clarification that needed to be disseminated quickly to hundreds of players - something the PA is continuing to do through their newly-elected player representatives.
Once again, something that sounds like it might be simple to do, but in practice is taking a lot of communication and training. “[The player reps] might not even be with their teammates,” Huster pointed out. “It’s not like we’re having meetings, so they can’t have five minutes at the end of the meeting and say hey this is from the Players Association. So getting that information out is really important, and how they go about that when, say, there might be a new player on a new team that is a rep as well. They only trained with [teammates] for, what was it, five days I think that we had preseason? So that, socially, it’s difficult.”
One resource the PA is offering their members to help cope with this period is a sports psychologist. Huster said she reached out to the PA to offer her services. Members of the PA can contact her directly for free, and Huster said non-contracted players and trialists should be able to access discounted rates for a session.
They’ve also been offered services by Jonathan van Horn, a chaplain who has worked with the Carolina Railhawks in NASL, to conduct a webinar series on leadership as a form of continuing education for players that want it. “He specializes in helping pro athletes prepare for their next career,” Huster said. “I think in a time like this, when things are so uncertain, that people can start to think about those things.”
It’s a sad fact of the women’s game that a lot more has to line up for a woman to have a long, steady career as a professional soccer player. This interruption in NWSL play could see a small jump in retirements, as players find themselves having to move on and find something that pays the bills. “I think you’re right even though it is hard to talk about,” Huster admitted, but she brought it back around to the positives. “I think it’s really good that the league and the ownership group, as I’m hearing from Brooke and Yael, none of them are talking about canceling the season. Everybody wants to play. Whatever that plan looks like, whatever the schedule looks like, everyone wants that to happen. Right now players are still getting paid. We’re operating as usual.”
As Huster described it, the players are in a bit of a holding pattern while they wait to hear what format the league might shift to in order to salvage the 2020 season. When told about some of the proposals out there, such as moving to a three-conference format or a nine-team tournament played out in one city over a few weeks, Huster didn’t rule anything out. “I think the majority [of players] would want to play any way that is,” she said. “I think those ideas are very creative. I would imagine that ownership and the league are trying to be as creative as they can but still maintaining a season or format that would be worthwhile.”
For Huster, on a personal level, she definitely wants to play no matter what. “I think what’s so tough is that we were headed in a really good direction and we had a lot of momentum. I know here at Spirit too, within our market we had a lot of momentum as far as sponsorship goes. Being at Audi. So it’s disappointing from that aspect, but it’s disappointing in a way that kind of lights a fire too. We just want to play because we felt that momentum and we want to get back out there and reignite that.... Plus you really have some of these really great international players coming over. Like, I want to play against Marozsan. That’s awesome.”
The PA continues to communicate with its players; in fact, Huster said she had a call with player reps the night of our interview, to ask how every market was doing and to brainstorm effective solutions to any problems. Players are checking in with their team medical staff, providing details about where they’ve been and their everyday symptoms. They’re all eagerly awaiting a start date, any start date, even though they’re keenly aware that it won’t be like the start of a regular season, with everyone forced to make do with whatever training they can get. Huster said there’s been discussion with the league about putting procedures in place to make sure the players aren’t run into the ground right away, and no one gets injured from an overambitious start.
In the meantime, there a few things that fans can do to continue supporting players. They can donate directly on the NWSLPA page; they can buy from BreakingT, who have partnered with the NWSLPA, the USWNTPA, and the WNBPA; and they can keep talking about NWSL with the league’s broadcast partners, CBS and Twitch, so that they know there’s an audience still out there, hungry for women’s sports. Huster hinted that the NWSLPA may have a new merch item out at some point, and she also brought up direct partnerships and donations, like their low-or-no-cost sports psychologist team-up. In-market small businesses who would like to partner up are very welcome, “Whether it’s something small like an Uber Eats card or something like that,” she said. And the players do take heart from fan messages. Huster said that social media was a blessing at a time like this, with players getting motivation from fans sharing favorite moments about the league, or individual players, or female pro athletes in general. The players are staying ready; the fans should stay ready too.