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NWSL’s investigation into Houston stadium security is a missed opportunity for transparency

I am once again asking you to give us slightly more information.

A fairly wretched saga in NWSL’s history has come to a (sort of) close, as the league announced on Tuesday they had concluded their investigation into an alleged racist incident between Houston Dash stadium security towards Sarah Gorden and her boyfriend.

After the Chicago Red Stars played the Houston Dash at BBVA Stadium in Houston on April 9, Gorden alleged that a stadium security guard confronted her and her boyfriend for trying to talk after the game because friends and family were not supposed to come down to the pitch per COVID protocol. However, as Gorden stated on twitter, she did not see that stadium security were treating white players and their families this way, and she and her boyfriend felt they were being targeted for being Black.

The Monday after this incident, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird sent a leaguewide email addressing the issue, saying that she had spoken to Gorden directly, the league would be launching an investigation, and that they would be providing mandatory training to address harassment and discrimination. Baird told players, “[Sarah Gorden] has my total support for speaking up and demanding that our league, its clubs and our venues adhere to the highest standards, and that everyone associated with this league treats one another with dignity and respect.”

NWSL announced on April 13 that they had launched an investigation the day after the incident, and have now announced on May 4 that the investigation is closed. The main body of their public statement is below:

The investigation was conducted under the NWSL Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment, available here. Following multiple interviews with witnesses and a review of the venue security footage, the investigation was closed. Based on the findings of the independent investigator, no disciplinary action will be taken against the club. Because of the confidentiality restrictions in the policy, the league will not have further comment on the investigation itself or the outcome other than to thank those who came forward with their concerns and those who participated in the investigation.

The also reiterated they are “developing mandatory, league-wide training to support that commitment.”

The reaction to this announcement was instantaneous and negative.

Such an ambiguous non-statement has left a void of assumption and guesswork. The main inference here is that the league investigation did not find enough evidence to warrant disciplinary action against the Dash. But that has still left fans asking what, exactly they did find; after all, “not enough” evidence is not the same as no evidence. And given this league’s history of lackluster and/or late statements in response to other incidents of similar gravity, fans are not being unreasonable in choosing not to trust the league.

You’ll recall during an incident in September of 2019, when Adrianna Franch was subjected to racist insults during a Thorns away game against the Utah Royals, that The Athletic reporter Meg Linehan asked NWSL for their policy on dealing with racist comments, and a league official at the time was unable to provide one.

Or you’ll remember Jess McDonald calling out a Rio Tinto stadium guard who threatened to call the police on her seven-year-old son in July of 2019, demonstrating that there is a pattern of Black players and their family encountering hostility from stadium security regardless of where they are. At the very least, the league should have been on notice that they needed some kind of anti-racism policy in place by the time Franch reported her encounter later that year.

There was also the league’s disciplinary report after Sarah Gorden reported the incident, in which they slipped in a sentence at the end that they had issued fines to Gotham FC and the Chicago Red Stars “for violation of a league directive.” This was later confirmed by several reporters to be for tweeting about the investigation - specifically, Red Stars co-owner Sarah Spain and Gotham GM Alyse Lahue, both of whom tweeted support of Gorden. While they were technically fined for commenting on the process after the league asked team staffers not to, the optics of it remain that two highly-visible club officials who publicly commented in support of a Black player were punished.

This is another brick in the wall of noncommunication from NWSL. Whether it’s disciplinary committee announcements or late schedules, the league has a habit of holding their cards too tightly to their chest. The confidentiality restrictions in the NWSL Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment are, presumably, written by the league. And so what it looks like to fans is that the league investigated one of its own teams and is now declining to release any further information based on its own policy - one which does not call solely for third-party investigation and therefore privileges an entity that has every reason to act in its own self-interest - making for a self-imposed curtain of secrecy, rather than an external one. While it is commendable that the league has finally put out a public anti-harassment policy, the perception is that it can and has been used in this case as a shield for the league and the Houston Dash to wield against the players.

Barring any request from Gorden herself to keep the results of an investigation private - a request for which there is no evidence at this time - the lasting impression from this decision to remain opaque is that of a potential chilling effect. Will any players now be less likely to report discrimination or harassment because they perceive the league won’t do anything about it? Perhaps - we don’t know what was communicated from the league to Gorden, who one would hope at least knew about this decision before it was announced. And the league’s anti-harassment policy does allow for anonymous reporting. Multiple players around the league, including on the Houston Dash, also expressed support for Gorden, and the Black Women’s Players Collective will hopefully be a powerful and effective resource in case of - knock on wood - any future incidents of racism. So perhaps players might not necessarily be afraid to report - or to at least make public their issues. But whether they will trust the league itself to do anything about it is an open question.

And in the future, it would behoove the league to consider slightly loosening its grip on information. Allowances must be made for confidentiality and sensitivity, certainly. But when fans immediately and consistently react with outright skepticism to league statements, that’s a signal that NWSL has a communication problem. When it comes to issues of racism, harassment, player protection, and safety protocols, ambiguity is nobody’s friend.