It's one thing for the decision-makers around women's soccer to vow, after a year plagued by off-field problems, that they are finally listening to the players. It's apparently quite another thing for everyone to actually do it.
Look no further than the Washington Spirit, where an ugly and unnecessary ownership battle has finally ended after months of tumult even though the resolution had been obvious from the very beginning. Steve Baldwin, the club's majority investor accused of fostering a toxic "old boys' club" built on cronyism, finally sold his stake in the club to Y. Michele Kang, the minority investor the players backed all along.
It was something Baldwin should have done months ago. In October, all of the Spirit's players publicly admitted they had asked Baldwin to step aside from being involved in the club's management after "all the infractions committed by the club and abuse we experienced," something he failed to do. Thus, the players said, they were asking him to sell the club to Kang, the woman who had emerged as Baldwin's main adversary within the Spirit ownership group.
The players wrote in a joint statement: "Let us be clear. The person we trust is Michele. She continuously puts players' needs and interests first. She listens." That, however, was not enough for Baldwin, nor was it enough for the board of governors at the National Women's Soccer League, which has nudged other owners out of the league in the past.
After the 2021 season in which the Spirit won a championship despite Baldwin's poor leadership, Kang made an offer to buy the club and give the players what they wanted. When Kang offered $35 million in December, Baldwin was already considering a $25 million bid from a group led by billionaire Todd Boehly. Baldwin still refused to sell to Kang at a higher price and pursued Boehly's bid. The NWSL's board of governors reportedly also preferred the Spirit be sold to Boehly over Kang, forcing Kang to pull off a boardroom power move.
On Jan. 11, Kang announced that multiple investors backing her with non-equity, non-voting positions had converted their promissory notes to become full voting shareholders, and together they held the majority shares of the club. Backed into a corner by Kang's maneuvering, which Baldwin decried as a "coup attempt," Baldwin finally relented and sold a month later.
As dysfunctional and as messy as the situation in Washington was, the sad irony is that the Spirit have stumbled into one of the better outcomes for the controversy-plagued teams in the NWSL.
Just look at the Portland Timbers/Portland Thorns. Less than six months after a formal complaint of sexual harassment against a former Thorns coach from 2015 came to light, the Timbers are now under investigation by MLS for their handling of domestic abuse accusations against a player. On the Thorns side, those allegations from 2015, which broke at the end of September, have been well-documented within the NWSL. Former player Mana Shim filed a formal complaint in 2015 to the Thorns front office accusing then-coach Paul Riley of sexually coercing her and other players on the team.
The club quietly let Riley leave and take a new NWSL coaching job, and Merritt Paulson, the club's owner, shared friendly tweets with Riley in the years afterward. Shim also alleged that general manager Gavin Wilkinson promoted a culture of silence and urged her not to talk about her personal life.
After Shim's allegations, Paulson penned a letter to fans in October promising to do better. He wrote: "We as an organization disavow the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach." Yet, at the same time, the Timbers had been keeping another instance of reported abuse quiet: A Timbers player, Andy Polo, had been accused by his wife and his wife's friend of domestic violence in May 2021.
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The Timbers were well aware of the alleged domestic abuse at the time -- two Timbers employees arrived on the scene at Polo's residence after police were called, and the employees spoke with officers from the sheriff's office. According to the police report, Jim McCausland, the Timbers' head of security, promised he'd "make sure that peace would be maintained inside the house." The responding officer wrote: "He assured me no further incidents would take place." Gabriel Jaimes, the Timbers' manager of player affairs, told another officer he was "purchasing flight tickets" to send Polo's wife back to Peru.
All of this factored into the responding officers' decision not to arrest Polo: The police report cited there being "a safety plan in place" and "Andy having Gabriel and Jim at the residence." The Timbers never reported the incident to MLS, despite the league apparently having a reporting policy for domestic violence.
The Timbers renewed Polo's contract in December for another year, and only after Polo's ex-wife went on television in Peru earlier this month and told her story publicly did the Timbers take action against Polo. He was initially suspended for an investigation, and two days later his contract was terminated.
This time, Paulson did not pen a letter making any promises to do better. An unattributed statement from the club said: "We deeply regret not suspending Polo immediately, especially considering the troubling new details of abuse that surfaced this week. It was a failure on our part, and one that will never happen again."
Paulson still owns the club. Wilkinson, after briefly being put on administrative leave with the Thorns (he got to keep his job and sit at his same desk for the Timbers) has been reinstated as the Timbers/Thorns "president of soccer." The investigation and disclosure of its findings that Paulson promised in his October letter didn't happen. Fans have been protesting since October, demanding Wilkinson be removed from the club, but the front office's response has been to shut off communication with supporters.
Next, look to the Chicago Red Stars. The club's longtime coach, Rory Dames, had to resign less than 48 hours after leading his team in the NWSL championship due to allegations of emotional abuse. But again, as was the case with Polo in Portland, Dames exited the club only because the allegations were going to become public: The Washington Post had interviewed players about his behavior and was about to publish its report.
The Red Stars had also long known about Dames' behavior. Christen Press, a star forward for the U.S. national team, filed a formal complaint in 2018 to the U.S. Soccer Federation, which managed the NWSL, though it appears that complaint was dismissed.
As is often the case with abusers, Dames' alleged behavior with the Red Stars was not isolated or new: Dames had a long history of it. Last week, The Washington Post spoke to former youth players coached by Dames who said he groomed them as teenagers for sex. One player filed a police report in 1998, which the Post obtained.
Accountability in Chicago, however, has been elusive. The Red Stars' lead owner, Arnim Whisler, is still at the helm even though fans have demanded his resignation for months. He issued a letter after the Post report making it clear he intended to stay at the club in a leadership role, writing, "I will continue to be accountable for what happens in the club."
Meanwhile, no one at U.S. Soccer has accepted responsibility for Press' complaint getting ignored. The federation's president at the time, Carlos Cordeiro, has claimed in a letter to USWNT players that he "was not aware of either Christen's allegations of abusive coaching or any investigation into her allegations by the federation."
He wrote: "Typically, such a complaint, in the interest of protecting player privacy, would be handled by the appropriate staff at U.S. Soccer, not the board of directors." It raises questions: If the president is not part of the appropriate staff to launch an investigation into allegations of abuse, who is? If player privacy was a concern, why not review the complaint with the player's name redacted? Was any meaningful action taken by anyone at U.S. Soccer?
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Cordeiro's excuse that "player privacy" prevented him from dealing with Press' complaint sounds familiar. Paulson, in trying to explain why the Thorns quietly let Riley seek new employment in the NWSL, made a similar claim. He admitted in his October letter that the club "made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley's contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy." It seems, however, that when it came to Shim's complaint about Riley's or Press' complaint about Dames, no one asked the players about their "privacy," especially when it meant their complaints weren't treated as seriously as they should've been.
That all brings us back to the Spirit, and their imperfect, messy resolution to similar problems of abuse under the leadership of Baldwin.
There were red flags quickly after Baldwin took over majority ownership of the Spirit in late 2018, and they went ignored for years.
First, Baldwin hired Larry Best as the club's first CEO, feeling that Best's role as his daughter's club soccer coach somehow qualified him for the job, despite having no experience running a professional team. Then Baldwin hired Richie Burke as the Spirit's head coach -- another man who had coached his daughter when she played youth soccer at a prep school called National Cathedral. Baldwin reportedly did not even consider any other candidates for head coach.
Within six weeks of Burke's hiring, allegations emerged from multiple former youth players under Burke that he used anti-gay and degrading language to berate them. Baldwin and Best stood by him. Predictably, similar allegations followed Burke at the Spirit: Within two years, players reported his behavior to the club front office, with several players admitting they left the team just to get away from Burke's abuse. Kaiya McCullough, who said she was "emotionally abused by Richie," left the NWSL to play for a club in Germany. "He made me hate soccer," she said.
As The Washington Post prepared to publish an exposé about Burke's abuse, Baldwin and Best tried to protect him. Burke was "reassigned" to the front office, and the club issued a news release claiming Burke had to step away from coaching for "health concerns." It's not surprising that Burke's behavior was tolerated: Multiple Spirit employees told The Washington Post that Best had nicknamed a player on the team "Dumb Broad" and another woman on staff "Mexican Mama," among other inappropriate nicknames. Women working for the organization had left en masse.
The abuse and the toxicity at the Spirit -- and the efforts to cover it up -- sound familiar. The Spirit's story might have stayed the same as the others if not for the players publicly demanding Baldwin sell the club and then, when that wasn't enough, Kang outwitting Baldwin in the boardroom.
But if listening to what the players want isn't enough -- and if accountability hinges on boardroom power moves -- then there's sadly little reason for optimism that the NWSL and women's soccer is really changing. The NWSL is supposed to be going through a reckoning ever since players such as Shim bravely spoke up about their experiences, but how will anyone ever believe the NWSL has changed when it has the same people in charge, the same people who let abuse happen on their watch in the first place?