The Washington Spirit have once again made soccer headlines, but for all of the wrong reasons. Instead of focusing on the players’ heroic efforts in their comeback against Kansas City this Sunday as they vie for the final spot in the playoffs, fans are forced to confront the latest instance in an ongoing scandal that has exposed the sexism and racism pervading the team’s management. In light of this news, demanding equality on the field is not enough; women belong in every facet of professional sports, including in positions off the pitch.
This August, The Washington Post revealed that at least three players — including 23-year-old rookie Kaiya McCullough, who has since quit the sport indefinitely — left the Washington Spirit because of emotional trauma inflicted by the now-disgraced former Head Coach Richie Burke. Burke had been hired by owner Steve Baldwin despite previous allegations of abuse in youth soccer circles. These revelations triggered a full NWSL investigation, which has now begun to expose a much more pervasive culture of misogyny than investigators initially feared, extending far beyond an abusive coach and a complicit owner.
The Post reported multiple anonymous allegations that the Spirit has an “old boys’ club,” in which underqualified male executives casually used profoundly offensive nicknames in reference to their female colleagues. Executives also stole ideas from their female counterparts, failed to inform them of relevant meetings and disrespected both their work and their identities. This systematic exclusion of women has led to a devastating loss of 40 percent of the female staff listed on the Spirit’s website at the start of the season.
Even in the face of this backlash, Baldwin has not only failed to adequately address the problem, but has rather compounded it. Instead of scrambling to rebuild his management team, he continued to ostracize co-owner Y. Michele Kang, the first woman to own a stake of the Spirit. Baldwin is reported to have belittled her concerns about male behavior toward female employees and excluded her from the decision to hire new Spirit President Ben Olsen. Furthermore, in a blatant act of racism, many within the organization blamed Kang — an Asian American woman — for the recent COVID-19 outbreak within the squad. The disease flare-up led to the Spirit forfeiting important games against the Portland Thorns and OL Reign in September.
Although the Spirit is currently under the spotlight, this epidemic of exclusion extends throughout the NWSL. Out of all American professional sports leagues, the WNBA is the only league to receive an A+ grade in The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports’ 2020 Racial and Gender Report Card. In comparison, the MLB and NFL received a C on gender hiring, and the MLS received a pitiful C-. The NWSL lacks an in-depth study but would likely receive an equally poor grade, considering that at the start of the 2021 season, Freya Coombe of NJ/NY Gotham FC was the only female head coach in the entire league. Although this number has now improved to three, the momentum must continue. It is also the epitome of hypocrisy that the league that brands itself as a space for female empowerment in a traditionally male-dominated sport is so blatantly disregarding gender equality behind the scenes.
These constant revelations of sexism are disheartening. It feels like a never-ending battle for basic respect and inclusivity for women in the professional sports world. Yet, there are certainly glimmers of hope.
NWSL 2022 expansion teams in Los Angeles and San Diego have centered their launches on gender diversity, hiring female head coaches and attracting high-profile investors, including USWNT legends Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm. They aspire to serve as a model for other teams to bring women into the front office.
At the Spirit’s latest game against Kansas City, Spirit fans unveiled a large banner that read “Can You Hear Us Now?” For the first time in history, it appears the answer might finally be yes. While it is alarming that the misogynistic culture at the Spirit went unchecked for so long, we must use this opportunity to reassess how we view gender equality in the sports world and to usher in a new era of inclusion. Now is the time to get energized. Never stop shouting for equal pay and opportunities for female athletes, but always remember to include in your cries those in the less glamorous positions off the field.
Carrie McDonald is a sophomore in the College. The Equalizer appears online every other week.