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Everyone, including NWSL players, deserves dignity at work

That cultural problem is pervasive.

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NWSL Archive: Racing Louisville FC v North Carolina Courage Andy Mead/ via Imagn

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates released the full investigative report on Monday as commissioned by U.S. Soccer last year, and it was yet another hammer blow regarding the culture in NWSL.

In focusing on three current NWSL clubs — the Portland Thorns, Chicago Red Stars, and Racing Louisville — the report is a damning indictment of unchecked power by three head coaches, as well as deep institutional rot, with clubs, the NWSL and U.S. Soccer playing hot potato and repeatedly refusing to take responsibility for years-long patterns of player mistreatment, sexual harassment and sexual assault throughout the league.

While all of Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly have been thoroughly disgraced by these revelations, with hints that this may not even fully account for their misdeeds, it is obvious there is more accountability needed beyond “bad men gone.”

Calls for club ownership to change at all three clubs are growing and going fully mainstream. The Portland organization, beset by a series of serious scandals across both MLS and NWSL teams for many years at this point, have sought to cover up and appease just enough to keep going, and given their entrenchment as a “success” story, they’ve skated by so far. The Red Stars, run far differently, have attempted to keep their heads down and not draw any attention, which worked until this report dropped. And Racing Louisville tried to impede the Yates investigation, to the investigative team’s exasperation, which we can only conclude was done because there’s even worse flubs not yet exposed.

And while the grave sexual misconduct will take the headlines (and should), even beyond the fact that some of the cases of misbehavior potentially rise to the level of literal sexual assault, they deserve to work in a dignified space. Simply put, NWSL players haven’t been allowed to work in conditions that reinforce their dignity as people.

Bad working conditions are not the realm of any one field, and frankly, they don’t fit along a wage/salary axis, either. You can be the world’s biggest pop star and have all your agency in your life and career legally taken away (hello, Britney Spears) or you could be on minimum wage and have a job in which you are treated humanely, with clearly delineated hours, conditions and fair treatment. There is no correlation, and jobs themselves don’t lead to a good or bad culture, people do.

In fact, when it comes to women’s professional sports, or even any role working in sports in general, players and all employees are forced to put up with nonsense because they are “lucky to be there.” If you can’t hack it, or put up with the garbage, there’s a line of people behind you who will. And with the NWSL being the third women’s pro soccer league to launch this in the last 25 years, expectations were brought to the floor because the survival of the league, no matter what, was what mattered.

Before long, players were nearing a decade of sub-minimum standards, and told to deal with it. No wonder so many retired from the game after a couple of years in the NWSL. Most were getting paid poverty wages, forced to work several jobs, live with strangers or in substandard housing, abused by their coaches, all to play soccer as pros, where they could then very well be disrespected by fans. Honestly, sounds awful.

In particular, I was struck in the Yates report about the amount of underhanded conduct alleged against Riley and Holly while they coached in the league regarding player injuries. Not only did the coaches try to withhold medical information from the players, and try to overrule medical staff regarding injuries, but the report indicated that such abuses were widespread around the NWSL, meaning many? most? all? of the coaches had a track record of this.

I probably don’t need to emphasize just how dangerous this is, in a profession where a player’s health is the single most important component to doing their job properly. It’s also worth noting there’s been an absolute avalanche of major injuries in the NWSL this year — perhaps all of those injuries are rotten luck and there’s been no coach meddling with player availability against medical advice in 2022, but your mind must wonder, right?

Above all, it’s clear that the NWSL culture, whether on three teams spotlighted or in general, has historically lacked an environment where players are treated with dignity. The excessive yelling, berating, manipulation, bullying, humiliation, minimizing injuries or ignoring medical advice, prying into personal lives, obsession over players’ weights, sexual harassment, sexual assault, lack of channels to seek remediation, lack of accountability from those in positions of authority, active cover-ups to minimize poor conduct — it all adds up to an underlying problem that players not only must work in tough conditions, they cannot even expect to be taken care of in any respect.

That’s the fundamental problem, and after rooting out the many, many horrible coaches, and hopefully the league leadership and club owners who enabled and abetted this behavior, the next objective will have to be to make sure all NWSL players can work and be treated with dignity at all times. If that baseline problem isn’t addressed, we might as well get rid of the NWSL.

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