The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Only one group can fix what’s wrong in soccer

Fans hold signs in support of players during a National Women's Soccer League match between the Washington Spirit and NJ/NY Gotham FC on Oct. 6 in Chester, Pa. (Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP)

Kaiya McCullough is a former player for the Washington Spirit.

Everyone is a rookie when they first come into the National Women’s Soccer League. I still was one when the league’s toxic culture pushed me out.

My short tenure with the Washington Spirit — less than a single season last year — was plenty to show me I was not in a safe environment conducive to my success as a young Black soccer player. The men who made up so much of team leadership used fear and bullying to maintain control of the club. Racist and degrading nicknames emanated from the front office. My coach emotionally abused me.

This pattern stretches back many more seasons than one, though, and plagues many more clubs than mine. But now, as so many people share similar stories, women’s soccer faces a reckoning. Clubs are firing dehumanizing coaches. The league’s ineffective commissioner resigned last Friday, in the middle of a leaguewide forced hiatus. Players, finally, seem to be in charge.

I have been playing soccer for 18 years, and I have never experienced a demand for total upheaval like this one. It’s an overwhelmingly positive thing, but it took trauma and suffering to get here. Only real, far-reaching change dictated by players themselves can honor that.

When I came to the league in 2020 as a 21-year-old, there was no anti-harassment policy, no mechanism for reporting incidents and certainly no support from officials when any abuse happened. I had no way to protect myself, and abusers preyed on my naivete. I would leave each practice to lie in bed for eight hours and dread the next day’s drills. I secretly prayed for an injury that would let me escape, even if just for a little while.

There was nobody to turn to. All of us were under the thumb of a boys’ club that valued money and control over the well-being of players. When I came forward in August with the story of my abuse, I did it with the hopes of becoming for someone else the person I wish I’d had in my corner.

That lack of support was by design, ensuring that nobody felt safe enough to speak up. But the time for that is over, and players across the organization are reclaiming the power that the league systematically stole from them. No longer is it acceptable for abusive men to win jobs after repeatedly demonstrating their unfitness, like my former coach did (though he denies this). No longer are unqualified individuals who jeopardize player safety welcome in positions of power.

Still, none of this reckoning is thanks to the benevolence of those in charge. Most owners have shown they are not willing to take the steps required to right past wrongs. The Spirit’s CEO, for instance, may have stepped down Tuesday — but he retains an ownership stake and a seat on the board of directors; his handpicked, inexperienced successor is now running the show.

Instead, it’s the players who are burdened with fixing soccer. Those culpable for perpetuating this culture have put forth mostly halfhearted responses where they sidestep responsibility. They have made vague promises of improvement. They’ll “do better next time” seems to be the talking point among the people who had the power to change things but didn’t.

It’s not good enough. Irreparable harm changed the lives of many players: young, old, rookie, veteran, current, retired. To atone for these wrongs, soccer must fully cut the rot from the root and allow a new way of doing things to grow. The players union’s list of demands — independent investigations, governance overhaul, a say in the selection of the next commissioner — is a good place to start.

Former midfielder Sinead Farrelly, whose allegations that her old coach sexually coerced her were also at the vanguard of our reckoning, said the response from fans and players gave her pain purpose. It’s our duty to make sure that all victims of abuse in soccer are honored this way.

It’s our duty to build a sport where trauma isn’t the price for playing the game we love. It’s our duty to demand conditions that allow players not merely to get by, but to thrive and rejoice. I alone don’t have all the answers, but I know that the path charted by toxic coaches, owners and managers led us away from that ideal.

Players, current and former, have been calling the shots for just a short while, but look at what progress has been made. The best way to protect the sanctity of soccer is to trust the people who play it.