America at Large: Odious antics of Richie Burke show work to be done by NWSL

Women’s football league is growing in popularity but some serious issues remain

Former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke pictured in 2020. Photograph:  Maddie Meyer/Getty

Former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke pictured in 2020. Photograph: Maddie Meyer/Getty

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When Richie Burke was appointed head coach of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit in early 2019, allegations immediately surfaced regarding his history of using abusive and homophobic language towards youth players who didn’t perform on the field.

A native of Liverpool with a mostly American resume that included a brief stint in Scotland with Livingston, he somehow rode out accusations of calling teenage boys “pu**ies” and “fa**ots”. The club announced their own investigation found no credible evidence to substantiate the claims against him amid scurrilous talk he only got the gig because he once coached the Spirit’s owner’s daughter on a high school team.

Two weeks ago, midway through his third season in charge, Burke resigned his position due to ill health, a matter of hours before the Washington Post published a story in which several Spirit players testified in great detail about his toxic regime, hallmarked by abusive behaviour that included making racially insensitive jokes to black players and dropping the “n” word.

Aside from calling some female footballers “dog-s**t” during regular tirades that caused a couple of them to consider giving up the sport altogether, he also suggested the squad should place a white practice dummy underneath their legs when kneeling for a photograph as part of “Black Lives Matter”.

“I was 100 per cent in a situation where I was being emotionally abused by Richie,” Kayla McCullough told the Post. “He created this environment where I knew I wasn’t playing as well because I was so, so scared to mess up and be yelled at. It crippled my performance, and it made me super anxious. He made me hate soccer…I cried after practice a few times. Once it became clear how Burke coached, what the culture was with the coaching staff, I went into survival mode. You can only do that for so long and still find joy in what you do.”

Expensive ordeal

One of four players who left the club because of Burke, McCullough and her team-mates were initially afraid to speak out against him because the women of the NWSL have precious little job security and no collective bargaining agreement. They feared having their contracts ripped up or being traded to a club 3000 miles away, the latter an especially expensive ordeal in a league where the minimum salary is $22,000 and 75 percent of players make $31,000 or less for a nine-month season. Beyond the all-conquering national team, some of whom earn half a million per annum, the women’s game is a tough place for workaday pros trying to make a living.

Revelations about Burke’s odious antics came shortly after the NWSL Players’ Association launched a campaign for fairer contracts and equal pay called #nomoresidehustles. The hashtag tells the story. They want to improve conditions and salaries so many of their members no longer have to work second and third jobs to sustain their professional sporting dreams.

For too long, those not contracted to the national team have been putting in shifts driving Ubers, packing boxes for Amazon, and giving private coaching lessons to make ends meet. One even admitted donating plasma for cash in order to buy groceries.

“All 8 years I’ve played in the NWSL, I’ve worked at least 2 additional jobs during season,” tweeted Emily Menges, a 29-year-old centre-back with the Portland Thorns, a club averaging 15,000 at home matches this season. “I’m eternally grateful for those employers who understood and worked with my schedule, but I’ll fight like crazy so the players who come next can just play soccer.”

Precarious reality

In its ninth season, the NWSL has 10 teams and is already more successful and enduring than its ill-fated predecessors, Women’s Professional Soccer (2007-2012) and the Women’s United Soccer Association (2001-03). If their short-lived existences point up the financially precarious reality of establishing a distaff pro league from scratch, the current iteration appears in decent health.

With a raft of blue-chip sponsors on board, television audiences went up 500 per cent last season, and CBS is now broadcasting some of its games. Just a couple of years after one club was exposed for making players train on a field with no working toilets or showers, the profile is, finally, of a proper league that could surely be paying its players enough to concentrate on their sport.

Next season, Angel City FC will join the NWSL, playing home games at the Banc of California stadium in downtown Los Angeles. Boasting a star-studded ownership consortium that includes Serena Williams, Billie Jean King, Mia Hamm, Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria and Natalie Portman, they have already signed Christen Press, a native of the city and twice World Cup winner with the US, on $550,000 a year.

Fresh off Olympique Lyonnais buying the Seattle Reign (now known as OL Reign), there is a belief the NWSL has become an attractive investment prospect and that should surely impact positively on wages sooner rather than later.

There remains, however, much work to be done. Amid the fall-out from the Richie Burke debacle, the Washington Spirit last week announced that it was bringing in Anson Dorrance, long-time legendary head coach of the University of North Carolina’s women’s teams, as club advisor. That would be the same Dorrance who settled two lawsuits brought against him by former players, alleging sexual harassment, including quizzing the undergraduate women in his care about their sex lives. Two steps forward, one step….yeah

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