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Black women object to National Women’s Soccer League’s treatment of their own

Fans and supporters challenge retaliation against Black players who complain about racism, sexism and emotional abuse by coaches

Last week, an investigation of the National Women’s Soccer League revealed systemic abuse that permeated the organization. The report is damning in its details, based in part on more than 100 interviews with current and former NWSL and U.S. Women’s National Team players who spoke of coaches hurling racist and sexist insults at players, punishing players who lodged complaints against them, and pursuing inappropriate relationships with players, sometimes coercing them into sex.

In the week that followed, some of the NWSL leaders connected to the alleged crimes have been fired, stepped down, or forced out of their positions.

Led by former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates, the investigation also exposed an NWSL leadership that repeatedly chose to ignore players when they spoke out. Two of the players named in the report who filed complaints, Christen Press and Samantha Johnson, are Black. They stepped forward in a league that has historically been overwhelmingly white, despite soccer being the most global of sports, and played in a country that deliriously labeled itself a melting pot. When Press and Johnson spoke up, they faced the same backlash other Black women have received time and time again for refusing to remain silent about their toxic workplaces. Two other players in the report, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, are gay, and were specifically targeted because of their sexual orientation.

Before long, NWSL sponsors issued statements responding to the investigation. Many announced that their continued support would be determined by the league’s progress toward sustainable change.

But the stakes are even higher than that. Women’s soccer is about to be thrust into one of its brightest spotlights yet: The NWSL playoffs begin this weekend, the Women’s World Cup next summer will be the biggest in the history of the tournament, and the Summer Games will follow in 2024. More people are paying attention to women’s soccer than ever before, which normally would be promising news for the NWSL, given its overall momentum and ambitious expansion goals. In the wake of this investigation, every micro-movement will be under the utmost scrutiny. The league cannot afford to respond with anything less than radical steps toward concrete change.

This is also happening at a time when Black women’s participation in soccer in the U.S. is growing. Their presence is causing a necessary shift to the sport’s culture, and their contributions at the collegiate, domestic, and international levels are proving increasingly crucial to their teams’ success. Besides bearing the brunt of sexism in women’s sports, these athletes must also remain hypervigilant to racism — both were elements of the abuse Press and Johnson faced and tried to address in the NWSL. The same goes for gay athletes who are subject to anti-gay bias and sexism, as Shim and Farrelly were. And, of course, those who are female, Black, and queer are all the more obligated to detect instances of danger. It’s crucial to their survival.

If the NWSL administration continues to fail in protecting its players, especially those who are raising the league’s profile with their skills and dominance, it doesn’t just risk losing sponsorships and broadcast contracts, it risks losing talent, too. Players who refuse to accept mistreatment will be inclined to seek opportunities abroad, and as other countries channel more funds to women’s soccer, particularly in Europe, those options are more appealing than they previously were.

To remain a competitive and viable league, the NWSL must listen to Black and other marginalized players when they raise issues of abuse — and act on them.

Then-Chicago Red Stars player Christen Press complained about the behavior of then-Red Stars head coach Rory Dames in 2014.

Katharine Lotze/Getty Images for Angel City FC

Last week’s investigation revealed how much work the league has to do on that front. Press, a forward for the U.S. Women’s National Team and formerly for the Chicago Red Stars, submitted a formal complaint in 2014 about the behavior of then-Stars head coach Rory Dames. She said Dames had created a “hostile work environment” filled with racist and sexist comments about players. Others on the team said Dames referred to Black players as “thugs,” and that his volatile temper perpetuated a culture of fear on the team — once, after an away game, Dames held private meetings in the team’s hotel from noon until 11 p.m. and forced players to stay in their rooms until they were summoned.

It wasn’t just that the front office failed to handle Press’ concerns, they ignored them completely and told Dames about the complaint, information he used against her in retaliation. When then-owner Arnim Whisler was shown Press’ complaint, he accused her of attempting to shut down the NWSL, even after a team survey backed up her claims. Whisler, who has since been removed as chairman of the board of the team, was so adamant about dismissing Press that even when Dames offered to resign to save the team from the shame of what her complaint outlined, he rejected it.

Press had a breakout season with the Chicago Red Stars that year. Even though she arrived midway though the season, Press netted 12 goals in six games and earned the team’s Golden Boot. Her ascent to fame coupled with the harsh treatment she faced for calling Dames out is reminiscent of the workplace “pet to threat” phenomenon.

Coined by researcher Kecia M. Thomas in 2013, it describes instances of Black women professionals whose exceptional performance earns them the affection of their colleagues and managers, but once that excellence begins to be perceived as a threat, they become subject to derision, microaggressions, and other mistreatment. The trend “suggests that new professional employees are not equal to their masters and that their masters know what is best for them, if only they behave appropriately,” Thomas writes. It’s not limited to any one industry, either. It happened when former Google researcher Timnit Gebru raised concerns about Google’s artificial intelligence software perpetuating racism and was swiftly forced out of the company, and when Ifeoma Ozoma broke her non-disclosure agreement in order to speak openly about the racial discrimination she faced at Pinterest. It also happened to the first solo Black curator of the Guggenheim, Chaédria LaBouvier, who said another curator had discriminated against her. (The Guggenheim investigated and found no wrongdoing, although the curator departed the institution shortly after.)

Press is a professional athlete with an extraordinary skill set, so it isn’t far-fetched to consider how her successful year on the Red Stars served as an additional factor in the way she was mistreated by the front office when she raised her complaints.

In 2018, the same year Press filed a second complaint about the club, Johnson, a former Red Stars defender, submitted one with issues of her own. Dames, Johnson said, had been engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with players: inviting them to one-on-one dinners, texting them late at night and complimenting their clothing. Like Press, Johnson described a culture of emotional and psychological abuse on the team. But she was also shrugged off. Whisler accused Johnson of trying to destroy Dames’ career and showed her complaint to Dames, just as he had done with Press.

That wasn’t the only form of retaliation Press and Johnson faced. They were both traded that season. Johnson’s trade came six days after she filed her complaint.

Though she wasn’t named in the Yates report, Kaiya McCullough was the only player to speak on record for a Washington Post story about the racist and emotional abuse she experienced from then-Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke during the 2020 season (She also appeared on ESPN’s “Truth Be Told” E60 documentary that detailed the NWSL investigation). McCullough, in her rookie season having just graduated from UCLA, said Burke’s tirades were so extreme that they made her hate playing soccer. The Post story prompted the NWSL to launch its own investigation into the abuse allegations. Burke was fired less than a month later. McCullough left the team before the season ended, and effectively left the sport. She recently started her first year at Harvard Law School.

Tiffany McCarty is familiar with Burke’s abusive treatment. The Laurel, Maryland, native was excited to move back to the area and play for her home team in 2019, but said it didn’t take long before he made it clear that he did not want her there. She said she injured her hamstring during the season, but that Burke still made her run sprints during a training session.

McCarty, who is now 31, said Burke’s demand felt as though he was saying to her, “ ‘You’re not good enough, but I’m going to push you until you hurt yourself,’ ” she recalled to Andscape. Attempts by Andscape to contact Burke this week were unsuccessful.

“It almost felt like he wanted me to get injured so that he wouldn’t have to deal with me.”

In another instance, McCarty made a mistake during a drill, and remembered Burke indirectly criticizing her intelligence — a comment that she believes referenced the trope of Black athletes being physically superior but lacking in mental acuity. She left the team at the end of the season and has since played abroad for teams in Japan, Norway and Iceland.

She had been keeping up with NWSL while overseas and wasn’t as surprised by the nature of the details of Yates’ investigation as she was by the fact that so many people had come forward with testimonies.

“In order to move forward, you have to deal with the stuff that’s been swept under the rug,” she said. “The hierarchy is off, and you’re setting people up to be abused.”

Former Washington Spirit Tiffany McCarty (left), played for Breidablik (Iceland) in 2021.

Haflidi Breidfjord – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images

As challenging as this landscape is for Black soccer players, those who support them have been grappling with their own questions. How do you support a league with a track record of ignoring players most susceptible to discrimination and abuse when they raise issues of danger?

Cam Brown joined the Rose City Riveters, the support group for the playoff-bound Portland Thorns, in 2017. As a queer person and a drummer, Brown, 32, fit right in, picking up her sticks to play along at games. She’s aware of how fragile the NWSL is as an institution, which makes the question of whether to continue supporting it even more fraught. Brown can hear the sadness in people’s voices when they talk about women’s professional soccer leagues that have since folded due to lack of funds, and she doesn’t want that to be the NWSL’s fate.

But some of the discourse on social media has many people calling for the league to do the very thing Brown fears.

“We see this as so precious and really want to make sure that abusers and people who are using their positions of power to do nefarious things can’t take something that should be for the players and supporters,” she said. “This is ours. This isn’t theirs.”

Many of the NWSL teams’ responses since the investigation came out were flat and generic. Jessica Turner, vice president of the North Carolina Courage support group Uproar NC, wasn’t impressed.

“ ‘I’ll copy your homework, but make it different so the teacher doesn’t know,’ ” Turner said of the statements that had begun to spread across the league. “That’s the energy every statement gave.”

Turner added that because the abuse has become so systemic in the league, she understands people’s calls to pull the plug and start fresh. But who can read the playbook of performative progress better than a Black woman?

“Say that the league shuttered at the end of the season,” Turner said. “Basically, the same group of people, or people very close to the same group of people who started our league 10 years ago would probably be the same ones at the table starting the new league.

“You want to hold these people accountable. Some owners, even before the reports came out, were owners that fans already had little faith in.”

“We see this as so precious and really want to make sure that abusers and people who are using their positions of power to do nefarious things can’t take something that should be for the players and supporters. This is ours. This isn’t theirs.” — Cam Brown, Portland Thorns supporter

Nicole Perry is a flag crew member for OL Reign’s Royal Guard support group. A paralegal and nonprofit worker, she was drawn to the idea of representing for Black trans women at soccer games. When the Rose City Riveters protested a game last year between the Thorns and the Reign after learning about then-head coach Paul Riley alleged sexual coercion against Portland Thorns players, Perry said the Royal Guard attended the game on its rival support group’s behalf and led chants.

Supporting women’s sports already requires extraordinary dedication due to the lack of funding and coverage they get compared to men’s sports. Even then, Perry takes that a step further.

“Make sure that those in the margins are heard,” she said. “Yes, there are a lot of people who can be heard, but don’t forget about the intersectionality that plays a role in how people perceive themselves as being heard. If you miss those, then you miss part of the work that needs to be done.”

The amount of work to be done to rid the system of abuse in the NWSL is staggering, partly because more reports are still rolling in. U.S. Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone announced on Oct. 7 that she had received three additional cases of misconduct since the Yates investigation came out. On Monday, the NWSL terminated the contracts of the Orlando Pride head coach Amanda Cromwell and assistant coach Sam Greene for engaging in retaliatory behavior. On Tuesday, Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Thorns and the Portland Timbers MLS team, announced he is stepping down as CEO of both clubs in wake of the Yates report findings.

And yet, this has been one of the most promising years for the growth of women’s soccer not only in the U.S., but all over the world. This summer’s tournaments had sold-out crowds and record-high viewership from Monterrey, Mexico, to Morocco. The competition between NWSL teams is so tight that any given game stands a chance to be as surprising as the next — a recent game between the top- and bottom-ranked teams ended in a 3-3 tie, and this weekend will mark the first time a team reaches the playoffs during its expansion year.

Black players are leading the charge on the U.S. Women’s National Team less than a year out from the World Cup. What these players have accomplished this year — because the abuse isn’t limited to the NWSL (see Spain’s and Zambia’s women’s teams) — despite what many were dealing with turns their wins bittersweet.

It makes you wonder what they could be capable of if they didn’t have to worry about coaches abusing them and administrators ignoring their calls for help.

Tamerra Griffin writes stories about women's soccer through the lens of the Black diaspora. A former soccer player herself, she was also a correspondent based in Kenya for BuzzFeed News, and has also reported in Sudan, Rwanda, Brazil, South Africa, Madagascar, and many other places.