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‘He made me hate soccer’: Players say they left NWSL’s Spirit over coach’s verbal abuse

Former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke is the subject of an NWSL investigation into allegations, revealed by The Washington Post, that he verbally abused players. (Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post)
8 min

It wasn’t very long into her rookie season with the Washington Spirit before Kaiya McCullough became terrified to make a mistake.

Throughout training and scrimmages last year, McCullough said, the team’s now-former coach, Richie Burke, screamed at her, and he didn’t stop. Anything could set him off, she said, prompting him to unleash a torrent of threats, criticism and personal insults on McCullough and her teammates.

Off the field, Burke also made racially insensitive jokes and comments that McCullough, who is Black, said left her feeling “very uncomfortable.”

“I was 100 percent in a situation where I was being emotionally abused by Richie,” McCullough said in an interview. “He created this environment where I knew I wasn’t playing as well because I was so, so scared to mess up and be yelled at. It crippled my performance, and it made me super anxious.

“He made me hate soccer,” McCullough said.

McCullough, 23, left the Spirit in the middle of the pandemic-altered season last year because of what she described as verbal and emotional abuse by Burke. She is one of at least four players who have left the Spirit in the past two years because of Burke’s treatment, according to interviews with former players and others with knowledge of the decisions.

As The Washington Post reported this story, the Spirit announced Tuesday that Burke had stepped down from the Spirit’s head coaching job, citing “health concerns.” The team said he would be “reassigned to the Spirit front office.”

The Post subsequently reached out to Burke and the Spirit, describing the former players’ allegations. Burke did not respond to a text message or phone call. The team said in a statement that it would put Burke on administrative leave pending an investigation under the National Women’s Soccer League’s anti-harassment policy. The investigation was confirmed by the NWSL.

“On the heels of our announcement today that Coach Burke was resigning, a Washington Post reporter contacted the Spirit with allegations of mistreatment — verbal and emotional abuse leveled at players — by Coach Burke,” team owner Steve Baldwin said in a statement. “We take these allegations very seriously and are undertaking an immediate investigation. Burke has been suspended pending the investigation and is prohibited from contacting players and staff and our facilities. We, as a team, will not tolerate any situation for our players and staff that is less than professional. Our athletes, and all of those who support them, deserve the absolute best.”

The Spirit declined to comment on whether it had received any complaints or allegations against Burke before Tuesday. The NWSL said it had not received any complaints about Burke.

Burke’s departure comes as NWSL players are fighting for their first union contract, speaking up for labor rights and employment security in a young league that so far has offered little of either. They are part of a wave of athletes, especially women, raising concerns about mental health, fair pay and equitable treatment in sports.

Sick of side hustles, NWSL players push back in fight for labor rights

Along with McCullough, two other former Spirit players told The Post they left the team because of what they said was Burke’s “abusive” treatment, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about retaliation. A fourth former player declined to comment, but her reason for leaving was confirmed by two people with knowledge of the situation.

McCullough and the other former players described Burke as belligerent and aggressive, screaming at them inches from their faces. One player called him “unbelievably volatile,” saying he targeted certain players with “personal attacks” and the constant threat of losing their jobs. He called players “dog s---” and “a waste of space,” two players said.

“I cried after practice a few times,” McCullough said. “Once it became clear how [Burke] coached, what the culture was with the coaching staff, I went into survival mode. You can only do that for so long and still find joy in what you do.”

Burke’s tenure was controversial from the start: Shortly after he was hired in 2018, two former youth players called him “emotionally abusive,” and one said he had used homophobic slurs. But the Spirit defended Burke at the time, with a representative telling The Post that Burke’s former youth team had “investigated the matter and determined no action was necessary.” Asked about the allegations, Burke told a reporter: “I’ve got no interest in showing bias in any way. It’s not a metric I think about.”

McCullough remembered discovering the previous allegations against Burke “in the middle of the chaos” of her early days at the club.

“I read it, and I was immediately like: ‘How did this guy get hired? Those seem like really credible allegations,’ ” McCullough said. “But it felt like they pushed that to the side, and nothing ever came of it. I got the impression that people didn’t care.”

The youth players’ allegations mirror almost exactly those of McCullough and the other former Spirit players. All described the same pattern: Burke singling out a player for personal attacks and criticism, including offensive language.

On the field, Burke, a former professional player, helped revitalize the Spirit, which had spent several seasons before his arrival languishing near the bottom of the NWSL standings. He focused on developing a new, young core of players — drafting 22-year-old Ashley Sanchez and 19-year-old Trinity Rodman, who has had a breakout first season with the Spirit. Burke was praised for “recalibrating” the Spirit’s culture and introducing a sophisticated playing style focused on ball movement.

But the Spirit has yet to break through with consistent results. It sits at seventh place in the tightly contested NWSL standings with a middling 5-5-3 record that puts it in jeopardy of missing the playoffs. McCullough and the two other players said Burke’s treatment had serious consequences on the field, affecting their and some of their teammates’ performances.

Burke targeted players in games, not just during training, yelling at them relentlessly from the sideline. One player came to dread in-game water breaks, meant to give players a rest from the heat, because of the chance that Burke would “scream in my face” when she approached the bench.

Throughout one game, Burke berated a rookie, McCullough and two other former Spirit players recalled, until she appeared to have a panic attack on the field, clutching her chest because she could not breathe. As she “hyperventilated,” Burke “just kept going,” the second former player said. “When he smells blood, he goes harder.”

When the rookie began to sob after the game, two players said, Burke continued to scream at her, calling her “selfish.” The player involved confirmed the incident but declined to comment on the record.

“He would bring you down and down, more and more and more and more,” the first former player said. “It wasn’t just like him yelling, ‘Don’t make that pass.’ It was personal every single time: ‘You’re never going to make the national team again.’ ‘You’re going to last 20 minutes in the next game.’ ”

Burke’s treatment also left emotional scars off the field, all three former players said. The two former players said they believed Burke’s treatment of them had given them panic disorders.

“When I left [the Spirit], it became clear: I am not okay, and I [didn’t] know if I was going to touch a ball literally ever again,” the second player said.

McCullough also described a pattern of “racially insensitive” remarks by Burke, including an incident at a small preseason dinner when Burke used the n-word in front of her while trying to describe how he had defended his sister from racist abuse.

“It wasn’t directed at me, but it was still very deeply jarring, and very uncomfortable, to hear a White person say that,” McCullough said.

The other two players who spoke to The Post were not present when Burke used the slur, they said. But one player recalled McCullough telling her about it afterward. The player said she, too, had observed Burke repeatedly making racially insensitive jokes and comments.

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McCullough had a history of racial justice activism when she was drafted 32nd overall by the Spirit in 2020. As a player at UCLA, McCullough took a knee during the national anthem before games, and she told reporters before her first NWSL season began that she planned to continue to kneel.

There were other incidents when Burke was racially insensitive, McCullough recalled. She overheard Burke joking to a Black player who had been hit in the eye, “Black eyes matter,” a joke that another player also recalled. And in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, McCullough said, Burke made a joke as Spirit players posed for a photograph of themselves kneeling on the field, saying they should pose while kneeling on top of an inflatable white practice dummy.

McCullough never played in a game with the Spirit. In September, the team waived McCullough at her request, a departure she said was “mutual.” Burke’s treatment was a significant factor for McCullough, as well as frustration with what she said was the organization’s failure to support her and other Black players.

After a brief stint playing soccer abroad, McCullough returned to the United States with plans to attend law school.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever play soccer again,” she said. “It’s hard for me to get past and not associate soccer with this painful, traumatic experience.”

Other players who left the Spirit because of Burke’s treatment saw more significant playing time than McCullough. But none was a starter, leaving them out of a small group of elite players Burke cultivated.

The two former players said they felt Burke targeted them because they were on the team’s fringes, terrified to speak up in case they lost their spots on the roster or their opportunity to play in games.

“The NWSL has no job security,” one former Spirit player said. “They can rip your contract out for nothing, and it doesn’t matter. It could be that if you miss a shot, that’s your job security.”

The players, who typically make a minimum salary of $22,000, have no collective bargaining agreement, and most could have been fired by Burke at any time. (The league says compensation is higher because of free year-round housing.) Under the NWSL’s current system, player rights are controlled by the Spirit even after players’ contracts expire.

“The head coach is the power broker in a system of rules built on disempowering players,” said Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL players’ union. “It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that players would be reluctant to speak out when a coach abuses his authority.”

The NWSL had no formal harassment policy until this year. A spokesperson said players were given “live trainings” on policies in 2017 and 2019, but all three players said they didn’t know that and had no idea whom to turn to in instances of abuse.

One top NWSL administrator has been fired since the anti-harassment policy took effect. But the former Spirit players said they would have been unlikely to speak up because of fears of retaliation and concerns about their jobs.

“People quite literally can’t say anything,” McCullough said. “They fear for their contracts. That is their way of living.”

McCullough said she hopes speaking up will spur the league to make changes, especially when it comes to its treatment of Black players. But she is still grappling with the effects of Burke’s coaching and her time with the Spirit.

“Being in that position made me feel small. That’s not something I’ve ever felt in my whole life, and it’s not something I’d ever want someone else to feel,” McCullough said. “The other thing it made me feel was betrayed. I feel betrayed that people would put me in that position.”

Steven Goff contributed reporting

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