The National Women’s Soccer League announced Tuesday that it suspended the Washington Spirit from being involved in league business and that the team’s former coach, Richie Burke, was fired from the club after an investigation of allegations of verbal abuse against him widened into an examination of the organization’s culture.
“The NWSL’s board of governors has determined that the Spirit and its ownership have failed to act in the best interests of the League,” the league said in a statement.
The Spirit will have two weeks to respond to the investigation, at which time the NWSL’s board could take further action against the club, the league’s announcement said. Burke did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Spirit spokesperson referred questions to the league.
The NWSL launched the investigation after a Washington Post story detailed allegations of verbal and emotional abuse against Burke by three former players. The players, who described how Burke had targeted them with threats and insults, said they left the team in part because of Burke’s treatment.
The investigation eventually widened into an examination of the team and its culture under Steve Baldwin, its controlling owner and CEO, according to four people with knowledge of the investigation, including multiple allegations of a toxic work environment for female employees.
The investigation found Spirit executives had knowledge of Burke’s treatment of players and did not report him, two people briefed on the investigation said, and that Baldwin, Burke and president of sporting operations Larry Best had created a culture in the club that prevented multiple players and employees from speaking up. Best did not respond to a request for comment.
Investigators also heard allegations that Baldwin hired unqualified friends for jobs at the club and that multiple male employees made misogynistic comments in the presence of female colleagues, those people said. Multiple people also raised concerns to investigators that Baldwin had “rage traded” multiple Spirit players whom he perceived to have defied him or been disloyal, two people briefed on the investigation said.
The people briefed did not identify the players, but Baldwin, in an email to The Post, identified the players as Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle. He defended the trades and called the allegation that he traded them for personal reasons “absurd.” He did not comment on the investigation’s other findings or other allegations.
Burke stepped down from his head coaching position in August, the day before The Post reported on the allegations against him. The Spirit said he would remain in the team’s front office but suspended him following the publication of The Post’s story.
It is not clear what the next steps are for the Spirit, whose owners are locked in a struggle over the team’s future. Y. Michele Kang, Baldwin’s co-owner, called Monday for Baldwin to sell the team to her in a letter to investors. She previously told NWSL leaders that Baldwin had agreed to sell her the team in August, in the wake of the allegations against Burke, then changed his mind.
Baldwin has given no indication since then that he plans to sell the club or step down as CEO. The league’s board has the power to force a sale or to take over operations of the club, but it is unclear whether it would take that step in this case.
The turmoil at the Spirit is the latest in a season of upheaval for the NWSL, which has seen the abrupt dismissal of several other coaches who faced previous allegations of improprieties with players as well as the firing of a general manager after a separate league investigation.
Players have called on the NWSL to improve the treatment of women, especially women of color, in the league. Following The Post’s reporting on Burke, Meghan Klingenberg, a Portland Thorns player and veteran of the U.S. national team, called the problem with abuse in the NWSL a “systemic” issue.
“It’s devastating hearing about abuse of young women chasing down their dreams,” Klingenberg wrote in a tweet. “It’s not possible to keep quiet anymore. . . . As a veteran player, I demand that the NWSL, the owners and GMs keep players safe.”
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