At the Washington Spirit’s National Women’s Soccer League game against the North Carolina Courage last weekend Aug. 21, Courage and Spirit supporters joined together to send a clear, unified statement: Washington Spirit co-owner Steve Baldwin must resign. Loud, unmistakable chants of “sell the team” and “protect the players” echoed across the stands.
Fans demanded accountability following a recent string of controversies surrounding the Spirit’s leadership, most notably the hiring of coach Richie Burke, who is now under investigation for emotionally abusing players.
However, these messages were not well-received by the Washington Spirit organization. After the game, Douglas Reyes-Ceron, founder of the Rose Room Collective — a supporter group created by and for Washington, D.C. soccer fans of color — voiced his concern in a tweet, sharing he had been asked by security to put down a sign that read “Sell the team, Steve” or risk removal from Audi Field.
While this action might seem like an insignificant gesture or a simple attempt to avoid bad press, it is deeply concerning to see the Spirit organization blatantly ignoring and silencing the opinions of fans in an effort to protect its crumbling reputation. It also suggests Washington’s leadership is failing to both hold itself responsible for and adequately respond to previous shortcomings.
When it comes down to it, Baldwin’s reputation as co-owner is unsalvageable. He must be held accountable. He is responsible for corrupt hiring practices that saw him select Richie Burke as the Spirit head coach in early 2019, despite being arguably underqualified with his experience mainly from coaching youth soccer leagues in the D.C. area, one including Baldwin’s daughter, ahead of many other more qualified women. Most importantly, Baldwin hired Burke even after a youth player from F.C. Virginia accused him of verbal abuse, including homophobic slurs.
Although Baldwin had been aware of these allegations of abuse since the beginning, it was only when former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough’s account of Burke’s abuse surfaced that Baldwin decided to finally act, placing Burke on administrative leave pending an NWSL investigation. Baldwin’s actions suggest he is more concerned with his public image than the well-being of his players, which has had a tragic impact on both the team and the players themselves.
The Washington Post’s reporting on Burke revealed at least four former players left as a result of Burke’s emotional abuse, representing a tremendous loss for the club. The emotional trauma inflicted by Burke’s personal attacks and use of racial and homophobic slurs can not be overstated. In a heartbreaking tweet, McCullough revealed that as a result of the emotional abuse, she no longer plays soccer and does not know if she will ever be able to. The damage Burke — and by extension Baldwin, who turned a blind eye to the abuse — imposed on players is irreconciliable, yet Baldwin still assumes a powerful position within the club.
In response to these public allegations, Baldwin issued a statement emphasizing the Spirit’s supposed unwavering commitment to its players’ well-being.
“We, as a team, will not tolerate any situation for our players and staff that is less than professional,” Baldwin said. “Our athletes, and all of those who support them, deserve the absolute best.”
It is time Baldwin follows his own advice: the players deserve to feel heard and to find joy and safety in their sport. The only way the Spirit will be able to live up to these words and foster a culture of care and respect is with Baldwin’s departure. The Spirit cannot reverse the damage its leadership has done, but the organization can demand accountability and take steps to improve its team culture going forward.
Out of this period of darkness and mismanagement, the Spirit has a real opportunity to set an example for the rest of the league and build a new identity: one with diverse leadership that better reflects the values of the sport. To do so, Baldwin must resign and the Spirit must engage in equitable hiring practices to elevate more women — particularly women of color — to leadership positions across the organization.
Carrie McDonald is a sophomore in the College. The Equalizer appears in print and online every other week.