Utah Royals former owner Dell Loy Hansen’s racist comments, the club’s history of sexism in marketing, the Royals’ former coach Craig Harrington lying in his interview, making inappropriate sexual comments to staff and creating a toxic team environment; James Clarkson’s victory chant; the targeting and lack of league protection for Sarah Gorden’s boyfriend and family and Houston’s first statement dismissing Gorden’s account of racial bias; misidentifying Jessica McDonald’s son after a live televised feature; YouTuber David Dobrik being removed as part-owner/investor of Angel City after an accusation of facilitating a sexual assault for his vlog; partnering with a nonprofit started by an NFL owner who held a fundraiser for Donald Trump; the continued misgendering of Quinn; and Richie Burke under investigation for more player verbal abuse along with the initial attempted coverup from the Washington Spirit President of Sporting Operations Larry Best.
This has all happened in the space of year. As NWSL players continue to perform on the pitch, there’s a documented and frequent pattern of them being let down by clubs and by the league front office.
Enough is indeed on its way to becoming enough.
With negotiations still ongoing between the NWSL and the NWSL Players’ Association over the league’s first ever CBA, the players have begun using their voice to set the groundwork.
Players shine a bright light onto ongoing issues
Former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough spoke to Molly Hensley-Clancy in a Washington Post article detailing Burke’s verbal abuses and racist comments. It should also be noted that she was the only one to have gone on record, as others in the league who spoke ‘on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation.’
However, this is beginning to change, or at least shift. Shortly after the release of the Post’s exposé, Portland Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg posted a response on Twitter, which starts with ‘I’m so fucking tired of this bullshit.’
It’s clear to me that a lot of people have been failed in a lot of ways.— Kai (@hiyakaiya) August 12, 2021
I’ve had people tell me their similar stories. How this abuse has been able to continue for YEARS without anyone protecting the players in harms way is gross negligence. Let this be a day of reckoning.
After that, Chicago Red Stars midfielder Dani Colaprico used Twitter to put the spotlight on a much-discussed concern of players and fans, the quality of the league’s refereeing. In a match against the Orlando Pride, dangerous fouls went unpunished, which is an enduring trend of refereeing in the league. Colaprico quote-tweeted five GIFs of dangerous challenges and tagged the NWSL’s Twitter account in each one.
The NWSL Players Association has organized players’ willingness to speak out against the league by creating the campaign #NoMoreSideHustles, which highlights the low pay many in the league are receiving, forcing them to take second or even third jobs in addition to professional athlete. At nomoresidehustles.com the NWSLPA reveals that ‘Roughly 1/3 of all NWSLPA members make the League’s minimum salary of $22,000 per year. Approximately 75% make $31,000 or less.’ Multiple players have stepped up to tell of the various jobs they’ve picked up just to be able to earn a livable wage.
During her midseason media call to welcome the Olympians back to the league, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird stated:
“All of that progress has been made while the league and the clubs continue to operate at a financial loss. This league and our owners are committed to a sustainable path forward, and that path includes a very fair bargain with our players in the collective bargaining process that began last year. We want a sustainable package of benefits and compensation that benefits our players, our clubs and the league.” -Lisa Baird; source: The Equalizer
In collective bargaining everything is negotiating, as each side tries to convince that the numbers from their vantage point aren’t beneficial to them. The problem for the NWSL is that many of the players’ concerns go well beyond how one looks at numbers, as most boil down to basic human rights. This tug-of-war with basic human rights at the center is a discouraging stance from the league overall, and borders on inhumane when you factor in all the league asks the players to put up with as the players continue to elevate the stature and status of the league, to the point where the league can tout partnerships with CBS, Google, Ally bank, Nike, and Budweiser.
Speaking out is hard but unfortunately a must, despite the toll it takes on those willing to do so
On an individual level, players speaking out also comes with a toll, and the emotional weight of coming to a breaking point and willingness to endure backlash and a spotlight on your vulnerability cannot be ignored. There’s the inherent knowledge that as soon as you demand fair treatment as a woman athlete there’s a pool of misogynists waiting to explain to the athlete why they doesn’t deserve it. When the person speaking out is black, add the traumas of frequent vitriolic racism.
The league should be as concerned as its players with the (incomplete) list of transgressions at the beginning of this article. As players use their voices more publicly, it’s clear that the NWSL and many club front offices need to be held more accountable for what is being allowed to happen to players. If players are speaking up, it’s in part because either no internal process exists to resolve their complaint, or that they sense it’s unproductive. While the NWSL’s first CBA must be substantial enough to address multiple issues between a league and its athletes, basic human rights shouldn’t be a piece on the negotiating table. The NWSL should do itself a favor and publicly stand on the side of player protections, because the more we hear, the worse things off the pitch seem to be.
Concerningly, or if you’re the glass-half-full type, fortuitously, the path toward resolving most of these issues is rather straightforward. By simply listening to its players the NWSL can build viable frameworks of accountability with protections from retribution for players (and staff) suffering mistreatment and/or abuse. The NWSL is at a crossroad where the fight for relevancy is behind and the task of laying a foundation for a sustainable league is ahead. The league must be willing to shed old and toxic baggage threatening to impede progress, and no group is a more qualified partner than the players.