U.S. women’s soccer is being rocked by an abuse scandal. It is showing who has the power even in a league that is considered progressive: men.
“Protect the players!” That slogan can now be seen everywhere. On Twitter and on a sign at a Portland Timbers home game against Inter Miami on Sunday, a men’s game — all games in the U.S. women’s league had been canceled for the weekend. In Portland, which is also the home of the women’s team Thorns FC, a second banner was also hung: “Believe, support, and protect NWSL players.” The NWSL is the National Women’s Soccer League.
The organization is being rocked by an abuse scandal. There is hardly any doubt that the athletes who had the courage to take their stories public must be believed. That they and everyone else must be protected. It is also a scandal that shows how power structures operate in a league that is supposed to be a progressive, leading organization. And what that, in turn, says about the U.S. narrative that sports provide everyone with a safe haven and opportunity for advancement.
“Men, protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN. Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll.” What moved superstar Megan Rapinoe, the country’s most famous female soccer player, who has already been Joe Biden’s guest at the White House to fight for equal pay, to call on Twitter for the league’s whole system to be brought down?
At the end of last week, The Washington Post and the sports magazine The Athletic independently published investigations into allegations of abuse in the women’s professional league. Paul Riley, coach of the North Carolina Courage, is said to have sexually harassed Meleana Shim and Sinead Farrelly and to have coerced Farrelly into having sex with him. And that over the course of years, as the players reveal. “I felt under his control,” Farrelly said. She ended her career in 2016. Shim no longer plays, either. Among other things, she described a situation in which Riley called her to his apartment to watch game film and was only wearing his underwear. Riley, who denies the allegations, was fired by his club, and the league revoked the license of one of its best-known coaches.
Richie Burke, coach of the Washington Spirit, allegedly emotionally abused and taunted players for years. “He made me hate soccer,” Kaiya McCullough told the Post. She left the team last year because she could not take it any longer. Other players have confirmed the coach’s draconic measures. Burke, too, has now been fired. Team owner Steve Baldwin announced his resignation on Tuesday. The players are said to have demanded his resignation in a letter.
The league wants to investigate the allegations. There are reports, however, that the allegations against Riley in particular have been known for some time. Alex Morgan, who like Rapinoe is a player known well outside the realm of soccer, published on Twitter emails with complaints and an answer from NSWL head Lisa Baird that played them down.
Baird, too, has had to resign in the meantime. The U.S. Soccer Federation announced on Sunday that Sally Yates, who was deputy attorney general under former President Barack Obama, will investigate the allegations. FIFA also intends to address the scandal.
But could these investigations help end the abuse and systematic discrimination, or is a new beginning necessary? Former FIFA World Player of the Year Abby Wambach also wrote about the organization on Twitter and its leadership: “[They] knew.”
Unlike in Germany, women’s soccer is more beloved than men’s soccer in the U.S. The national team won the World Cup in 2015 and 2019. According to broadcaster Fox Sports, approximately 14.3 million U.S. viewers watched the 2019 World Cup final. Rapinoe, who was a member of that national team and publicly spoke out against then-President Donald Trump, became a national star and a spokesperson for equality. Like all female athletes, however, she earned considerably less than her male colleagues, even though the athletic achievements of the women have been greater.
The Sports Fairy Tale Too Good To Be True
In 2019, U.S. media were already reporting that women’s soccer was more lucrative in the U.S. than men’s soccer. In September of this year, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced that they would offer women and men equal contracts. But financial equality — and the promise from the federation is only a small part of that, in addition to contracts with clubs and sponsors — does not in any way mean that equality has been achieved in all questions of power in the sport.
The scandal brutally reveals that in a league that proclaims to want to empower and strengthen women, male dominance reigns and the (female) players are seen as second-class athletes. It is a scandal that could have repercussions far beyond soccer. Because it destroys the image of sport as a refuge in society. It is a variant of the American dream: even someone from the most modest background can achieve fame, respect and wealth if he or she just shoots baskets, passes balls or scores goals well enough.
After Giannis Antetokounmpo won the NBA championship with the Milwaukee Bucks in July, he spoke about how he worked as a street vendor with his mother when he was a child, without much in the way of future prospects, without a homeland. But those who believe in their dreams can achieve them. The 26-year-old with Greek and Nigerian roots was not acting when he said that.
Professional sports also promise girls everything in this country, but fail to deliver on many fronts. Male athletes earn more, play at prime time and thus earn more from advertising and have better contracts with sponsors and more privileges. The women’s soccer players are part of one of the best-organized women’s leagues in the United States, but with few exceptions their leadership, too, is dominated by men, as is the leadership of the clubs.
The sports fairy tale that was too good to be true began to fall apart when the doctor for U.S. gymnastics, Larry Nassar, was arrested and sentenced in 2018 for hundreds of counts of abuse. In that case, too, the federation is said to have covered up his misdoings. Simone Biles is among the more than 100 victims. Biles is one of the strongest voices for her sports, as is Rapinoe for hers. Without the prominent voices that can shift the balance of power, systematic change is difficult, perhaps impossible.
Basketball player Breanna Stewart, like Antetokounmpo, recently became the best-paid player in her league and broke scoring records. But she is the first female athlete in more than a decade to be able to design her own shoes. Among the men, 18 players had their own shoe deals last season alone. Stewart’s Puma collection is called “Overdue.” Unequal financial circumstances and fear of losing everything that one has achieved as a professional athlete are part of what keeps female athletes from speaking out. This guarantees coaches, doctors and entire federations control at all levels — a silence that Shim, Farrelly and McCullough have now broken for their sport.
Rapinoe retweeted Stewart’s announcement on Twitter and wrote above it, “LFG”: “Let’s fucking go.” There is still a long road ahead.
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