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ESPN chronicles NWSL’s year of reckoning in new E60 episode ‘Truth Be Told’

90-minute special chronicles a breaking point in 2021.

Courtesy of ESPN

This year has ushered in a new era of the NWSL, one that includes not only a debut collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league, but also the debut of the first expansion teams in California, Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC, which have hosted record-breaking crowds, set new standards in terms of marketing prowess, and oh yeah, performed better on the field than any expansion teams in the league before them.

But it was barely a year ago that the NWSL itself seemed to be in danger of collapsing, as a series of cascading scandals led to the league commissioner resigning in disgrace, players requesting the weekend off games completely and upon their return, stopping games and standing in solidarity to center themselves in a league which had previously marginalized them all too often.

That forms the focus of ESPN’s newest E60 episode, Truth Be Told, which will debut to air on Tuesday.

The documentary traces the important context for why a culture of impunity festered in the NWSL for nearly a decade — with the launch and failure of two previous women’s professional soccer leagues in the United States, players were made to accept sub-poverty salaries, take on additional jobs and given sub-standard professional conditions because the alternative was seemingly no pro league at all.

But as the NWSL has evolved in its first decade, with the league first getting beyond the critical opening three seasons and then bringing in higher pay and improved conditions in fits and starts, players understood not only were they not getting even baseline workplace protections in many cases, such as basic dignity and freedom from verbal abuse and sexual harassment and abuse, one player noted she was not getting paid enough to make any of it worth it.

Everything came to a head in the fall of 2021, when North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was accused by two former players of sexual harassment and sexual coercion while at previous stops in his career, including at fellow NWSL club Portland Thorns. One of those players, Mana Shim, is interviewed at length in the E60 episode, as are a number of players from around the league, including current Angel City FC player Simone Charley.

The 90-minute documentary focuses on the scandal surrounding Riley and the one around the Washington Spirit, particularly the dismissal and subsequent cover-up of head coach Richie Burke in 2021. Former Spirit player and UCLA product Kaiya McCullough is interviewed in the documentary about her willingness to go on the record regarding the racial and other verbal abuse she experienced by Burke, with Burke offering a weak response in his time on camera.

Probably the most fascinating — and frustrating — interview in the documentary comes from former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who appears to recognize she needed to resign, but in extensive comments, refuses to engage in why she flat-out lied about not being aware of the accusations against Riley. Far from issuing an unsatisfying-if-understandable no comment pending the outcome of investigations on the cascading scandals in the league and sport (something another familiar figure in American soccer does do at one point), Baird appears to either be in total denial over what happened or have gotten the worst PR advice in history as she fumbles through a series of very basic questions.

For soccer fans who may not have followed the many scandals in the last year and a half of the NWSL on a granular level, this documentary will do a great job of filling in the general context, the biggest hits from the biggest scandals that brought the league to its knees, and reasons for hope in the NWSL moving forward. As the NWSL wraps up the 2022 regular season this weekend, the on-field product has never been more compelling, and the majority of teams in the league still have something to play for as the standings show a fiercely contested campaign.

For NWSL fans in particular, the documentary will likely produce a more complex response. There’s a surprising amount of archival footage used, particularly around the Courage and Spirit, and both disgraced ex-coaches are shown in some capacity to be clearly guilty of some of what they were accused of. Interviews with Shim, McCullough, Alex Morgan, Tori Huster and Merritt Mathias in particular reveal some new information about their former coaches. That being said, given the audience for a program like this, for sports fans in general, there’s not a great deal of truly new revelations in the documentary.

It’s worth noting as well that the narrative sweep of the documentary may not wholly satisfy those looking for a full airing of grievances. It’s worth remembering that while the situations surrounding Riley and that around the Washington Spirit were perhaps the highest profile, all told seven teams have had coaches or other front office personnel fired or suspended indefinitely for misconduct since the start of 2021 (an eighth club, now the Kansas City Current, had a coach fired in 2020 for misconduct when the club was under different ownership as the Utah Royals, and in fact, moved to Kansas City as a result of a pattern of misconduct by the then-owner in Utah). Meanwhile, the Thorns organization, along with brother club the Portland Timbers, have had a series of scandals dating back to their firing of Riley back in 2015 and continuing through this year. In essence, every club that existed prior to this year has been hit with some scandal or embarrassment, and the documentary does not get into all of it. Of course, if they did, this would be more like an eight-episode series instead of a 90-minute film, so editorial scope was likely a consideration here.

And while the documentary ends on a high note, with Angel City FC getting prominent placement as a club bringing the league forward, the fact that so many owners who enabled abuse or looked the other way around the league remain in their positions must undercut that uplifting message. There may be a new commissioner for the league, and new clubs with new blood, but some of the people who failed previously remain, and given the league’s track record, we can all hope there is no future horrible scandal for ACFC but we must remain in a “show me, don’t tell me” stance until we are several years removed from gross misconduct anywhere. To be sure, there is nothing wrong with hoping for and indeed, expecting better from the league moving forward, but hopefully in the future, when players speak up, anyone who is told needs to listen and to act in a productive way.

ESPN’s E60 Truth Be ToldThe Fight For Women’s Professional Soccer is scheduled to debut on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 7 pm ET on ESPN. The program will be available to stream after that on ESPN+.

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