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Co-owners of NWSL’s Spirit fight for control after abuse allegations against coach

Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke is under league investigation after The Washington Post reported that players accused Burke of abuse. (Scott McIntyre/For The Washington Post)
7 min

A co-owner of the NWSL’s Washington Spirit is fighting for control of the team after allegations of abuse against its former coach, according to emails reviewed by The Washington Post.

Business executive Y. Michele Kang, who joined the ownership group last year, is seeking to buy a controlling share from co-owner and CEO Steve Baldwin, the emails show, but Baldwin is resisting efforts to push him out.

In an email to NWSL leaders and fellow team owners last week, Baldwin accused Kang of attempting “to have me step aside in favor of her as CEO."

Kang, who also was a recipient of Baldwin’s email, replied to the group that discussions with Baldwin about selling his stake in the team started in April, when he first offered to sell his shares to her. The conversations resumed in the days after The Post published a story detailing the allegations against the team’s former coach, Richie Burke. Baldwin initially agreed to sell the team, Kang said in the email, but changed his mind.

The battle for control of the Spirit underscores a leaguewide movement to change the culture within the NWSL, elevating more women into leadership roles that, from the sideline to the owner’s box, have long been occupied largely by men.

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

The struggle between the two owners comes as the NWSL investigates the allegations against Burke, who was hired by Baldwin and Larry Best, the Spirit’s president of sporting operations. Before Burke’s hiring, Baldwin was told of allegations that Burke had acted abusively toward youth players, a former top executive, Chris Hummer, told The Post. And a board member of a Spirit sponsor said she raised concerns about the coach to Baldwin, telling another owner, Bill Lynch, in an email that Burke’s hiring could jeopardize a potential sponsorship.

Baldwin, Best, Burke and the Spirit did not respond to requests for comment, and Kang declined to comment. The NWSL declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

A new voice

Tensions between the Spirit’s largest stakeholders, Baldwin and Kang, have simmered for months, according to people familiar with the situation and emails reviewed by The Post.

Kang, the founder and chief executive of a health information technology company, joined the Spirit ownership group late last year, purchasing a 35 percent stake in the Spirit. Baldwin also owns 35 percent of the team, he disclosed in emails reviewed by The Post. Kang was part of a wave of new, diverse female owners in the NWSL, a league that has long been dominated by White men in the ranks of owners, executives and coaches.

After Angel City FC, a 2022 expansion team in Los Angeles, announced a majority-female ownership group that included Serena Williams and actress Natalie Portman, other teams followed suit. Tennis star Naomi Osaka joined the North Carolina Courage’s ownership group, and several dozen individuals, including Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager and former U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry, joined the Washington group. And the league has three female coaches, with more expected to join in 2022.

In the email to NWSL leaders this week, Baldwin said he initially “welcomed” Kang to the Spirit’s ownership: “The thought was Michele could serve as an inspirational role model for our players and be a positive impact in our community.”

But rather than serve as a figurehead, Kang became closely involved in the team. She bonded with players and staff at the team’s preseason training camp in Florida, said one person familiar with the team, inviting them to her home in Palm Beach. Later, she took the team to a dinner at Nobu DC.

In April, Kang brought “a variety of serious issues and concerns” to Baldwin, she wrote in the email to NWSL leaders last week. She did not detail those concerns but said Baldwin then offered to sell her his stake in the team. Baldwin told Kang at the time that he believed it was time for the Spirit to have a woman owner, she said in the email.

Kang said she agreed at the time that, “based on the issues in the organization, it was important for me to step up to help the club.”

A coaching change

Baldwin remained CEO and co-owner throughout the summer. Then Burke stepped down as coach Aug. 11 for what the team said were “health concerns," and was reassigned to the team’s front office. The next day, The Post published its story detailing allegations by four former players that Burke abused them verbally and emotionally. He was suspended pending an investigation by the NWSL.

Burke was dealing with stress-related issues and required hospitalization, according to two people familiar with the situation, who were not authorized to speak publicly about Burke’s health. The Spirit declined to comment on whether the team had received any complaints about Burke prior to the Post’s story.

Burke’s removal appears to have driven Kang’s efforts to wrest control from Baldwin, who hired the coach in late 2018 — shortly after he purchased a majority stake in the Spirit from Lynch, the team’s original owner. Burke had long coached youth teams in the same D.C. youth soccer circles as Best, who also coached Baldwin’s daughter.

Reports of Burke’s alleged behavior emerged publicly in the months after his hiring, when the parents of a youth player said the coach had abused their son and directed homophobic language at players. Burke did not directly deny the allegations, telling a reporter, “I’ve got no interest in showing bias in any way. It’s not a metric I think about.”

At the time, the Spirit defended Burke, saying the team had “gathered all available information” and “were very pleased to receive support from numerous parents who have worked with Coach Burke throughout the years.”

But behind the scenes, people within the Spirit had already raised concerns to Baldwin about Burke’s hiring, according to three people familiar with the situation, relaying allegations from multiple people that Burke had acted abusively towards his players and employees.

Hummer, the Spirit’s former president, told Baldwin of widespread concerns with Burke’s alleged behavior towards players before the coach was hired, two people with knowledge of the situation said. They did not want to be named because of concerns about professional repercussions.

The Post reached out to Hummer, who confirmed the story. Hummer said he left the Spirit after its change in ownership in part because of his objection to Burke’s hiring.

“There were concerns about Richie, and I shared them greatly as a member of the D.C. area community,” Hummer said. “I adamantly brought my concerns to the new executive team,” which included Baldwin and Best.

Those concerns included vulgar emails in which Burke berated a subordinate and reports of Burke allegedly using the homophobic slur “f----t” with male youth players, Hummer said.

"Steve and Larry knew,” Hummer said of Burke’s record of alleged mistreatment of youth players. “Everybody knew.”

Hummer oversaw the Spirit when the team was struggling, both on the field and with a controversial owner and toxic team culture. A story in the Athletic said Hummer once spent several minutes criticizing the performance of a player on his team within earshot of journalists.

Others also raised alarms to Spirit executives about the prospect of Burke’s hiring. Laurie Lane, a local youth soccer leader, said she approached Lynch in November 2018 to express concerns about rumors that Baldwin planned to hire Burke.

“This is very distressing to me and others in the community,” Lane wrote in an email to Lynch. (She declined to share the email but read its contents to The Post.) “I cannot tell you how strongly I feel that he would not be a good choice."

Lane was also a board member for the Virginia nonprofit Women and Girls in Soccer, which was weighing a lucrative sponsorship of the Spirit. In an email, she told Lynch that WAGS had “tabled” the possibility of a sponsorship of the Spirit because of rumors of Burke’s hiring.

Baldwin reached out to Lane after the email, and she met with him, reiterating concerns about Burke’s reputation, she said.

After Lane spoke to Baldwin, WAGS ultimately moved forward with the sponsorship, with Lane’s backing. Lane said she thought Baldwin had "done an amazing amount of good for those women. He’s worked very hard to try to do the right things.” (WAGS declined to comment. Lane stepped down from the organization’s board this month.)

Two days after The Post’s story about the Burke allegations was published, Kang resumed conversations about purchasing the team from Baldwin, emails reviewed by the Post show.

In his email to the group of owners Tuesday, Baldwin accused Kang of meddling in the team’s “day-to-day affairs” and “compromising” the team’s messaging, alleging she had gone to the league’s commissioner to get him to step aside.

“Bill and I fear the internal dissension may find itself in the press,” Baldwin wrote of himself and co-owner Lynch, who owns a 30 percent interest.

Days after the allegations against Burke were made public, Kang flew in a private jet to the New York area to pick up the league’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, ahead of a Spirit game in Houston on Aug. 13, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. Both met with players after what was the Spirit’s first game played without Burke, a 2-2 draw.

That was the day that Baldwin had initially agreed to sell his shares in the team, according to Kang’s email to league leaders. By later that night, he had changed his mind and, as one person familiar with the situation said, “dug in his heels.”

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