Documents provided to investigators and reviewed by The Post also show that Spirit employees raised concerns in May about sexism and a lack of representation of women in the organization.
The probe by an outside firm, which was recently completed, comes as the NWSL undergoes a reckoning over player treatment and the representation of women and people of color in a league that has been dominated by White male coaches, executives and owners.
The Post spoke to eight women who work or have worked for the Spirit, as well as three current and former players, who said they had been subjected to a workplace culture that was toxic for women and, many said, for women of color. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fears of professional repercussions. One former player, Kaiya McCullough, told The Post in August that she was verbally abused by Burke, the former coach. Those allegations, which were echoed by other former players, triggered the NWSL probe.
The Spirit’s only female assistant coach and three of its most senior female executives left their jobs with the team in recent months, and two other female employees left after the allegations against Burke were made public. The team still has a front office that is made up of mostly women. But in total, a third of the women who were listed on the team’s website in June have left the club. None of the women who have left would speak to The Post on the record.
Amid this disarray, Spirit owner and CEO Steve Baldwin has taken steps that have sidelined his co-owner, Y. Michele Kang, multiple people with knowledge of the situation said, excluding her from club announcements and attempting to prevent her from speaking with staff. Kang had repeatedly raised concerns to Baldwin about the treatment of women in the organization, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
In response to questions from a reporter, Baldwin called The Post’s reporting inaccurate but refused to comment or respond to questions on the record. Kang declined to comment. The NWSL has not commented since announcing its investigation and declined to comment for this story.
‘Not respecting women’
In its ninth season, the NWSL is enjoying unparalleled exposure — and, with it, pressure to overhaul its culture. As the league negotiates its first labor deal with players, teams have been pushed to hire female coaches and general managers, once a scarcity in the league, and several teams have dismissed male coaches who had faced previous allegations of improprieties with players. At the beginning of the season, the NWSL had just one female coach.
When Baldwin bought a controlling stake in the Spirit in 2018, the club was struggling, finishing its season with just two wins. Baldwin revitalized the team in many ways, bringing in a talented young core of players and investment dollars, as well as better playing conditions and an influx of staff.
Even as the Spirit touted the empowerment of women and girls in sports, the team under Baldwin adopted a culture that left many women feeling sidelined or demeaned, several current or former employees said. Four women separately described the culture as an “old boys’ club,” and two called it “misogynistic.”
Baldwin, multiple people said, was insistent on hiring staff from his own circles. That included hiring as CEO Larry Best, who had no experience in professional sports but came from the world of local youth soccer, where he had coached Baldwin’s daughter.
For the team’s head coaching position, Best and Baldwin hired Burke, a youth coach who had never coached women professionally or in the NCAA. They made that hire, The Post reported this month, over concerns raised by staff and others close to the team that Burke had acted abusively to youth players. Burke declined to comment on that story but previously told a reporter he had “no interest in showing bias.”
In the Spirit’s front office, women led many departments, two current employees said, but were routinely shut out of important decisions. Female executives were often overridden by male executives, multiple employees said. “Anytime that person starts to push back against things, they’re stonewalled hard” by male executives, especially the men on the sporting side of the organization, said one woman who works for the team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of losing employment.
“As a woman, I got my ideas stolen from me. Men would take credit for my ideas,” another current Spirit employee said. “I’m very qualified for my job, but I absolutely wasn’t appreciated.”
On the Spirit’s sporting staff, two people with knowledge of the team said, women were excluded from technical discussions and passed over for jobs given to men. Women often found out about meetings they should have been included in only after the fact, one person said.
In May, just before the start of the season, a human resources adviser raised concerns to Spirit executives after an internal survey of players and staff showed discontent within the organization, according to documents provided to investigators and reviewed by The Post.
“I did want to bring up that some of the comments concern me,” the adviser said in an email. Among the “weaknesses” cited by players and employees in the survey, she said, were “men not respecting women,” as well as “executives who aren’t qualified.”
Since then, three top women have left their jobs at the Spirit, draining the team’s front office of many senior female employees, including its two senior Black female staffers. Both of the women listed on the Spirit’s coaching staff this June since also have left the club.
For some players, the Spirit’s dynamics were even more difficult. The Post reported in August that multiple players left the team because of what they said was verbal and emotional abuse by Burke. But players also contended last year with the inappropriate behavior by a male assistant coach, Tom Torres, according to McCullough and two other former players who confirmed Torres’s behavior to The Post.
Torres left the team after making inappropriate sexual comments to players while drunk last summer, McCullough said on her podcast. At the time, the Spirit said Torres had left “to pursue other interests.” The allegations against him were previously reported by the Athletic. Torres declined to comment.
League investigators also have heard concerns from multiple women about Best and his treatment of women and people of color, two people with knowledge of the investigation said.
In the Spirit’s front office, Best is well-known for the nicknames he doles out to players and staff. Best joked several times that a Spirit player should be known as “Dumb Broad,” according to three people who heard him use the nickname.
Best frequently called people by their initials, including a youth player he called “J.G.” — shorthand, Best would say, for “Japanese Girl,” according to a Spirit employee who heard him make the comment. He routinely called a person in the organization “Mexican Mama,” which multiple people said made them feel uncomfortable, though that person, who still works for the club, liked the nickname, according to an email provided to The Post by Baldwin.
Best did not respond to multiple requests for comment detailing these allegations via text and email.
An ‘owner’ no more
Kang was brought into the Spirit’s ownership group last year as part of a wave of female owners and investors in the male-dominated NWSL. At the time, she was the first woman to own a stake in the Spirit, with a stake equal in size to Baldwin’s, according to an email from Baldwin sent to NWSL owners in August.
Since then, many other women have joined the team as so-called investors, including Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager and World Cup star Briana Scurry. The size of the investment, which includes dozens of people, was not disclosed, but it provided a substantial influx of cash to the team.
On the Spirit’s three-member board of governors, which features Baldwin, Kang and co-owner Bill Lynch, Baldwin retained decision-making authority. Baldwin expected Kang, an Asian American woman and the founder and CEO of a health-care technology company, to be an “inspirational figure,” he wrote to NWSL leaders in an email.
But Kang quickly became involved with the team, hosting team dinners and growing close to some players and staff. In April, she approached Baldwin with concerns about the organization, according to an email she wrote to NWSL leaders that was reviewed by The Post.
She did not detail those concerns in the email. But a person with knowledge of the situation said Kang’s concerns included Best’s treatment of female employees. Kang specified an incident to Baldwin, confirmed by multiple people who witnessed it, in which Best insulted a female executive in front of multiple staffers. In the wake of abuse allegations against the team’s coach, Kang again approached Baldwin with concerns about the organization, her email said.
Baldwin initially agreed to sell his shares in the team to Kang, according to the email Kang sent to the NWSL, but he then changed his mind. He has since told staffers not to speak to Kang without his permission and recently grew angry with staff members who wanted to spend time with her, two people with knowledge of the workings of the team said.
Kang was excluded from recent conversations about the selection of the team’s new president, Ben Olsen, one person with knowledge of the team said, and was not included in a news release announcing the hire — though Baldwin, Lynch and another male investor were. And in recent weeks, the Spirit’s website was amended to change Kang’s title, online records show — from “Owner” to “Equity Partner.”
Another allegation, reported by the same journalist hours later, cited people speaking on the condition of anonymity blaming Kang, who is Asian American, for causing a covid-19 outbreak within the Spirit at a “dumpling making party” she had hosted for players. The outbreak in fact began, the soccer website The Equalizer later reported, when one of the many unvaccinated players on the team traveled and did not follow isolation protocols.