Are you a sports fan? Yes? Are you a soccer fan? Well, do you watch women’s soccer? Why not? 

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a few times over the last two years. Like many people, I started watching women’s soccer in earnest (okay, obsessively) after the 2019 U.S. Women’s National Soccer team’s (USWNT) dominant and galvanizing performance in the World Cup. Before long I was watching every USWNT match, figuring out how to stream the Women’s Super League in England and all the various cups and tournaments in Europe, and discovering the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) here in the United States. 

Maybe you’ve heard of the NWSL in the last few weeks—maybe for the first time ever? That’s because the media only seems to cover women’s soccer when something bad happens. And in this case, something really bad did happen. On September 30, Meg Linehan at The Athletic reported that two former NWSL players said they had been subjected to horrific abuse and sexual coercion by their then coach at the Portland Thorns, Paul Riley. Riley had moved on from the Thorns—despite the league and Thorns’ leadership having been told about his behavior—to become the head coach of the North Carolina Courage, where he remained until he was fired after the news broke. 

It’s a heartbreaking story. Both players, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, have shared the huge cost to their careers and well-being because of Riley—who used his position of power as a trusted coach to harm the very people he was entrusted with helping. 

And it’s heartbreaking, because it’s not the only terrible story coming out of the NWSL this season. Three OTHER coaches have been fired (there are only 10 teams in the league!) for abusive or harmful behavior, violating the league’s new anti-harassment policy, which went into effect this April after players like Alex Morgan demanded it. And players have been subjected to racism from arena security, misgendering by broadcasters, homophobia, crappy turf surfaces, poor and sometimes dangerous refereeing, COVID cases and quarantines, and probably a lot more than we even know. 

The NWSL, which is the third attempt at a professional women’s soccer league in the United States, is now almost 10 years old. And it’s at a critical moment. On the one hand, tons of new fans (like me) are finally discovering women’s soccer, which has led to increased viewership, attendance, and sponsorships. On the other, the league is still marred by a lack of transparency, accountability, and care for its players. 

For too long, many NWSL players felt they couldn’t talk about what happened to them, because the league wouldn’t survive the bad press or stress—the previous U.S. women’s leagues folded under financial strain. And that culture of silence has harmed many of its players, who were told repeatedly they were lucky to have jobs at all. 

But with the formation of the Black Women’s Players Collective last year and former player Kaiya McCollough bravely speaking to the Washington Post this summer about the abusive and racist behavior of her now fired Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke, the silence has been broken. It’s not a coincidence that it took investigative reporting of two women assigned to cover women’s sports to expose the harmful behavior of coaches in the NWSL. (Thank you, Meg Linehan and Molly Hensley-Clancy.) 

This reckoning for the NWSL means things can finally change; they already are.  

Riley was fired and had his coaching licenses revoked. The NWSL commissioner, Lisa Baird, has resigned. The players have used their collective voices—and their incredible union, which is in the process of bargaining its first contract—to make a series of demands that will help ensure safer playing conditions and protections for them. They’re also fighting to be paid a living wage—75 percent of NWSL players are paid $31,000 or less annually. 

What is clear now—and should’ve been clear from the start to league officials and those in power in the soccer world—is that the players ARE the NWSL. There is no league without them, so they must be treated and compensated like the world-class professional athletes that they are.  

So, what took me and so many others so long to find women’s soccer?  

Why didn’t I know how fun and breathtaking and entertaining it is? Why did I just accept that if it wasn’t on ESPN, it wasn’t worth watching? 

The answers are all obvious—women’s work isn’t valued, and women’s sports are still often deemed inferior, even though most people have never watched a single WNBA or NWSL game. And how could they? You have to subscribe to a streaming service to watch NWSL games, and the poor broadcast quality and limited camera angles would stun the average NFL fan. But this too can change. It’s hard to become a fan of something you’ve never seen, but we shouldn’t accept the opinions of those in power about what deserves our attention and money.  

If we were all watching sooner, the players would be better compensated by now. The league would be making money. NWSL players wouldn’t still be worrying about losing their jobs or being traded in retaliation for sharing their experiences or taking a knee.  

But it’s not too late to join the club, to root for a group of brave players who kill it weekly on the field, while off the field they fight for the same things we do here at NWLC: equal pay, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, better working conditions, respect, and recognition. 

To get you started—and to focus us back on the players and their accomplishments themselves—here are just a few of my favorite goals from this season. 

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1398790515064291339?s=20

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1396591608540319749?s=20

https://twitter.com/NWSL/status/1421978388990939136?s=20

 

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