How Supporters Are Responding To The NWSL's Reckoning
Protect The Players
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During a season that has already been mired in controversy and scandal, last week still felt unbelievable for NWSL supporters.
“The last few days have been rough,” said Danielle Russell, media director of the Kansas City Blue Crew, a KC NWSL supporters group. “We’ve all been angry and sad. It’s been so hard for us to even articulate our anger.”
On Thursday, the Athletic dropped a bombshell report, alleging that former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley sexually coerced and abused former players dating back to 2010. This came just days after former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke was fired following an investigation into Burke’s verbal abuse and harassment. Both of these incidents came in the same season that former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly was abruptly fired for cause, and former OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti stepped down, due to what we now know were allegations of abusive comments. Most incriminating were revelations that the league’s front office had prior knowledge of Riley’s actions, and allowed him to continue coaching in the league, thereby endangering players.
The fallout since Thursday has been seismic. Social media blazed with horrified reactions from voices at the highest levels of the sport. This weekend’s NWSL matches were called off. Former league commissioner Lisa Baird resigned late Friday night, and FIFA and U.S. Soccer have both opened investigations. Statement upon statement has been released from clubs, leagues, and players associations both inside and outside of the NWSL, making Twitter feel more on fire than usual, and the story has been picked up by the mainstream media.
What felt like weeks of tumult occurred in less than 48 hours. Now, supporters across the league are dealing with the fallout and trying to support each other and the league’s players.
“I think we've just been fueled by our emotions the past few days,” said Jen Muller, a leader of Gotham FC supporters group, Cloud 9. “The whole season has been a rollercoaster for us, both within Gotham and league-wide. It all came to a head on Thursday. It's anger and disgust at what has come to light, alongside heartbreak and empathy for players.”
For many, the revelations have led to disappointment and anger.
“The past few days have been really eye-opening,” said Leigh Nieves, president of the Lavender Legion, a Racing Louisville supporters group. “We've realized just how much these players have been silenced over the past few years and it’s upset us to the core.”
“Reading about both the abuses suffered by athletes within the NWSL, and the ways in which that abuse was covered up and enabled, was simultaneously deeply upsetting and sadly unsurprising,” said Jessica Strong, president of the Royal Guard Supporters Group, an OL Reign SG.
“Most of [it was directed] at what players had to suffer, but some of it came from a place of having invested a lot of time, energy, and money into being a part of making the NWSL a success,” Strong said. “In a sense, our names are on the product too, and it was profoundly disappointing to come to understand that a league that promotes itself as the best in the world would so profoundly fail its players and enable abuse.”
RJ Allen @ExSoccerPunditIf you were a Courage fan and you thought he was a good coach and you thought he was charming when you hung out with him once? It's ok. If you were media who saw he was a good interview and hadn’t heard what happened in Portland or didn't know there were horrors? It's ok.
For members of the Uproar, a supporters group for the North Carolina Courage, Riley’s former club, the news has been especially tough to deal with.
“The Courage have brought us so much to celebrate these last few years,” said Uproar president Mary Pruter. “Waking up to the article was devastating. It forced us to reframe everything. It's replaced that same joy with anger, disgust, heartbreak, and guilt, and it's caused us great concern over the treatment of the players.”
After the news broke, many groups released their own statement on social media, or collaborated on a response with the Independent Supporters Council, then began to connect internally to make sure no one had to deal with the news alone.
“Luckily we had each other,” said Russell. “Our group Discord channel has been an important place to talk and be together. I'm not sure how I could have been able to handle the last few days without everyone.”
“Friends who don't follow the NWSL have been reaching out because it's out there in the mainstream,” said Pruter. “Having a community to turn to who understands exactly what I'm feeling has been crucial. Amidst this chaos, I have found comfort in knowing I'm not alone. People need to know they aren't dealing with this trauma alone.”
In Louisville, outside of a darkened stadium that was supposed to be the site of Racing Louisville’s late-season clash against Gotham FC, supporters from several Racing Lousiville SGs filled the parking lot, making signs in support of the players, and calling for change.
“I am so grateful for this group for wanting to get together on Friday night in lieu of the game cancellation,” said Nieves. “I’m not sure we had a specific purpose, but I knew that a lot of us had a lot of feelings and we wanted to get together and decompress. We decided that making signs for the Coopers to hold at the Lou City game on Sunday was a productive thing that we could do. I think it made people feel like we were actually doing something instead of just sitting at home with our feelings of anger.”
The next night in Portland, the response was emotional and direct. Members of the Rose City Riveters, a Portland Thorns supporters group, gathered outside Providence Park with flares, drums and signs calling for the removal of several front office officials.
“The past few days have been very difficult,” said Gabby Rosas, a member of the Riveters Steering Committee and the president of 107IST, the non-profit umbrella organization for the Riveters and the Timbers Army. “While we are all reacting and processing the reporting and hearing from more players who are coming forward, we are also trying to organize and lead. As a group, we are trying to be there to show the players our support. We have always been passionate about supporting the Portland Thorns and our hope was that the players heard, saw, and/or felt that support over the weekend.”
The next day, at the Timbers nationally-televised match against Inter Miami, several banners hung in front of the Timbers Army in support of NWSL players, and the story was addressed on FS1’s broadcast.
“The Riveters are best when we're together,” said Rosas. “We're strong and loud and a force. So it is important that we continue to create space to be a community, and to grow our community. The Timbers Army has been extremely supportive and is in this with us.”
Later that night, 175 miles north of Portland, outside of Lumen Field in Seattle, the Royal Guard held a solidarity rally ahead of the Sounders’ match and hung banners in front of the Emerald City Supporters section during the game.
“We’ve received great support from the Emerald City Supporters,” Strong said. “We are also watching the NWSLPA and reaching out to our players directly so we can best support what they feel is needed to put a system into place to protect the players. I think we let it be known in our statement that in regards to the failures of our own ownership, trust has been lost and we expect better.”
Not even a full week removed from that explosive report, aftershocks are still being felt. Supporters continue to band together and brace for the next wave of news as developments continue to drop at warp speed. Several groups have already begun to, or plan to engage with their respective front offices to voice concerns.
“At this time, we are taking it moment by moment,” said Pruter. “Our members need time to grieve. Our immediate concerns are the health and well-being of our members and the players on our team and beyond.”
For all NWSL supporters, the past few days have crystalized the urgent, immediate mission of ensuring that this will never happen again.
“Our primary focus is always with the players,” said Muller. “Their mental, emotional, and physical health comes first. Full stop. As supporters it's up to us to do whatever we can to help the players shift the balance of power in their favor.”
“We want our team and the league to put systems in place to make sure nothing like this happens again,” said Pruter. “As the dust settles and the mainstream media moves on, we will continue our work in making sure this league is worthy of its players and its fans.”