When hundreds of professional soccer players gathered for a video conference on Thursday evening, they all had enough.
A head coach in his league was sacked that morning on charges of forcing a player on his team to have sex and harassing others. He was released two days after another team’s coach was sacked for threats and personal insults. Many of the women who participated in the National Women’s Soccer League’s Athletes Union campaign had their own painful stories to tell.
For two hours they discussed what to do next, and their decision was made shortly before midnight: The players’ union would ask the league to cancel the five games scheduled for this weekend so that the athletes would have “space to deal with this pain.” . said the union in a statement.
Nobody was sure what would happen if the league refused.
On Friday morning, just hours after the players ended their conversation, the league complied with their request to cancel the games. And as the day progressed, many in women’s football believed it was only a matter of time before Lisa Baird, the league’s commissioner, resigned or was fired.
Now the league that is home to some of the United States’ most famous athletes – World Cup winners like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd – is being held accountable by these women, as well as the majority with annual contracts of $ 31,000 or less. The players say the league should do more to protect it from abuse and – in a criticism aimed directly at the league commissioner – that their concerns must not be brushed aside.
This public anger from players who are increasingly comfortable sharing their stories of abuse in the workplace underscored a power dynamic in women’s sports: employment tends to be less stable than men’s leagues, and management decisions are largely in the hands of men who Owners, operate and coach the teams.
Nobody knows yet how much the crisis will worsen or what the league will look like when the players return to the field.
The National Women’s Soccer League has become by far the most successful professional soccer league for women in the United States. Both the Women’s United Soccer Association and the Women’s Professional Soccer only lasted three seasons in the early 2000s and failed to find financial stability.
The NWSL has seen its share of turmoil – two of the founding teams no longer exist and others have moved – but it has reached a ninth season and a few other real milestones. The league is negotiating its first player collective agreement, has a national television deal with CBS, and no longer receives much of its funding and administrative support from the United States Soccer Federation, the national governing body for the sport.
But as became clear this week, bullying and abusive behavior have been part of the league from the start.
On Thursday, The Athletic reported Allegations that Paul Riley, who coached the North Carolina Courage to league championships in 2018 and 2019, forced a player to have sex with him, forced two players to kiss and then sent them unsolicited sexual images and yelled at and belittled players.
The Athletic also reported that Riley lost his job as head coach with the Portland Thorns in 2015 due in part to violating team guidelines, but the league soon allowed another team to hire Riley and the violations were never publicly disclosed.
On Tuesday the League announced that Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke – the one according to a Washington Post report would trigger “a barrage of threats, criticism and personal insults” on players in August – was fired and was no longer allowed to work in the NWSL
At the end of August, Christy Holly, the head coach of Racing Louisville, was fired for an important reason, according to the league local television station reported that players had complained about a “toxic environment”. And Farid Benstiti, the head coach of OL Reign in the Seattle area, resigned in July, and the team’s chairman admitted on Friday that he asked Benstiti to resign after a player reported inappropriate comments from the coach to the board.
40 percent of the league’s head coaches were involved in these departures in the past three months; At the beginning of the season, men occupied eight of the ten head coach positions.
In Thursday’s conference call, the players did not refuse to attend the games this weekend, but made it clear that they wanted substantial changes.
Baird, the commissioner, was the focus of criticism. In April Sinead Farrelly, a former NWSL player, written an email Baird said she heard “firsthand extremely inappropriate behavior” from Riley and that the concerns raised by Farrelly during a 2015 investigation into Riley by the Thorns had not been thoroughly investigated.
Baird replied that the NWSL takes player safety seriously, but that “the original complaint has been investigated to completion”.
The emails were posted publicly on Twitter on Thursday by Morgan, a star Orlando Pride player and one of the most recognizable members of the women’s national team. “The league must take responsibility for a process that does not protect its own players from this abuse,” she wrote.
In announcing the cancellation of the games, Baird offered her own apology for the first time. “This week and much of this season has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff,” she said, “and I take full responsibility for the role I’ve played.”
Had the players tried to take collective action to force change, the efforts would have been hampered by the unusual structure of the NWSL. Members of the women’s national team who play in the league are not paid by their individual clubs but by the United States Soccer Federation and are therefore subject to a collective agreement concluded with the association. Under this agreement, players are not allowed to participate in strikes or work stoppages. The clause also applies to their employment in the NWSL
In doing so, they have drawn the attention of US football and FIFA, the international governing body, both of which said late Friday that they would be investigating the issues raised in media reports.
The aftermath for Riley, who denied most of the allegations against The Athletic and did not respond to messages from the New York Times asking for comment, was quick. He was fired from Courage on Thursday and temporarily suspended on Friday from the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit organization established by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committees to protect athletes from sexual, physical, and emotional abuse.
Calculating the full impact of the crisis on the league will take much longer, a point made clear in the players’ statement on the cancellation of the games this weekend. Even when pressing for shutdown in a moment of crisis, players recognized the impact and inconvenience for their fans.
“We know that many of our fans have made travel plans, planned their evening off or made commitments to attend our games, and that this decision also has an impact on you,” said the players’ union called.
They know the league will only continue to thrive if the shutdown doesn’t alienate fans.