Players of the NWSL Take a Stand Against the League’s Inability to Protect Players

By Zandy Soree

Women in sports have had long-standing battles with power imbalances and player protection. Female athletes have often been told to be grateful for what they are given in their sport, leading to the idea that speaking out on being victimized would only hurt them. In a system that favors men (specifically, men in positions of power), women have had nothing to gain and everything to lose by speaking out. Within the NWSL, coaches continued to be employed by the league with no ramifications after reports of verbally abusive and sexually inappropriate behavior.

Just this year, the players, spearheaded by Alex Morgan, took it upon themselves to push the league to put an anti-harassment policy in place. The policy finally gave players the pathway they needed to safely and effectively speak on issues that the league had previously ignored. Shortly after this policy was put in place, two former players who had previously reported Coach Paul Riley for inappropriate conduct spoke up again, requesting that the league open a new investigation in light of the new anti-harassment policy.  The Washington Spirit team protected Richie Burke when they announced that he would leave his current position as head coach for front office duties due to “health concerns.” Shortly thereafter, a former member of the Spirit, Kaiya McCollough went on record in an article by Molly Hensley-Clancy on the verbal, emotional, and racial abuse she faced while playing for Burke. She was not alone in expressing that she left the team as a result of this abuse; several other players faced the same fate. Hensley-Clancy wrote another article about the Spirit, painting the environment at the organization as a whole to be extremely difficult for women, especially women of color.  At the end of August, coach Christy Holly of Racing Louisville FC was terminated “for cause.” The league has refused to speak on what this cause is, even after assuring players complete transparency. This instance mimics the history of the league in its use of vague language after a major personnel change. 

Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly share their truth in The Athletic six years later.

Former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird assured former players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim that the accusations against Riley had been previously investigated. However, Farrelly and Shim spoke on the record with Meg Linehan of The Athletic about the abuse they had faced from Riley and their feeling that the matter was handled improperly by the league. These were the same accusations that were brought to the league’s attention back in 2015 when Riley was the coach of the Portland Thorns. After the investigation, his contract was not renewed by the Thorns, but he was hired by the Western New York Flash a short five months later and went on to become the coach of the team that later became today’s North Carolina Courage. The players were told that the investigation was complete, and there was nothing more they could have done at the time.  There was no formal anti-harassment policy in place, so it seemed like a lost cause until now. As a result of Meg Linehan’s reporting in The Athletic,  a new investigation was put in place, and Riley’s contract with the North Carolina Courage was terminated. 

A few days later, Lisa Baird resigned as NWSL Commissioner. All games scheduled to be played on October 2nd and 3rd were postponed after the NWSL Players Association released a statement with a list of demands. The next weekend, six minutes into each game, the players of opposing teams gathered all together in the center circle in a moment of solidarity to honor Farrelly and Shim, whose abuse and well-being were disregarded by the NWSL for an appalling six years. More details continue to come out regarding instances of harassment that were blatantly overlooked by the league. The NWSLPA has demanded that various high-level members of each organization’s staff “voluntarily submit to the Player’s Association’s independent investigation into abusive content.” In an environment where the women and players have had such little protection, the NWSLPA is taking it upon themselves to ensure that this pattern of abuse and harassment is finally broken. 

Current NWSL players on Gotham FC and Washington Spirit stop during the sixth minute of play for a moment of solidarity.

We, at The Hidden Opponent, stand in solidarity with each player that has been affected by the unsafe and emotionally abusive culture that has been cultivated within this league. We are grateful that the players are coming together to push against a corrupt structure that previously gave no voice to its victims. We hope that their action empowers athletes or women in any situation to speak out on injustice and harmful treatment. We hope that we can begin to foster a safe and healthy environment for all athletes for years to come.

Zandy Soree is a staff writer at The Hidden Opponent, a former professional soccer player in the NWSL and a current professional player at Breidablik Football in Iceland.

Edited by Livia Wallick, former athlete at Wesleyan University.

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