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NWSL returns to the field, with signs of protest and a statement on the pitch

The players of the National Women’s Soccer League stopped playing their games on Oct. 6 in an act of solidarity with victims of sexual abuse. (Video: The Washington Post)

CHESTER, Pa. — The picturesque scene at Subaru Park, just off the shores of the Delaware River, belied the unrest that has roiled the National Women’s Soccer League over the past week. And as the Washington Spirit and Gotham FC took the field Wednesday night to end the league’s tumultuous nine-day hiatus, signs of the discontent were easy to spot.

Among the messages draped around the stadium: “Protect our players,” “#BelieveBlackPlayers,” “#NoMoreSideHustles” and “We support Spirit fans. Sell the team, Baldwin.”

The match, which ended as a scoreless draw, was one of three on the docket Wednesday as the NWSL returned from its self-imposed break. That hiatus included the postponement of this past weekend’s matches after two coaches — the North Carolina Courage’s Paul Riley and the Spirit’s Richie Burke — were fired amid abuse accusations.

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For six uneventful minutes, the game progressed.

Then, as the clock ticked to 6:00, all 22 players on the field abruptly paused and jogged toward the center circle. As they were joined by substitutes from both benches, the players locked arms. After bowing their heads for a full minute, chants from the river end of the stadium broke through:

“No. More. Silence.”

“It’s been an extremely emotional however many days on top of however many weeks on top of however many years, and it feels like that has compounded and taken a big toll on a lot of us,” Spirit captain Andi Sullivan said. “So we’ve had a lot of conversations as players about how terrible we feel for each other. Especially tonight, when we stopped and gathered together, I’ve never felt so connected to every single player in the league, current and former.”

Riley’s firing last week came after former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly detailed to the Athletic allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against the longtime coach. (Riley has denied the claims.) Steve Malik, the club’s owner and chairman, released a statement Wednesday morning saying he “had no knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment or coercion” when he purchased the franchise in 2017 and retained Riley as coach.

Burke’s exit followed an NWSL investigation into accusations of a toxic work environment as laid out in reports by The Washington Post, including claims by former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough of verbal abuse and racially insensitive comments. The league banned Burke from working with any NWSL players, and the Spirit was stripped of its seat at the table in league governance matters.

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As the Spirit and Gotham froze play after six minutes, the NWSL Players Association released a statement explaining the gesture: “Players will join together in solidarity at the center circle for one minute in recognition of the six years it took for Mana, Sinead, and all of those who fought for too long to be heard.”

“The [players’ association] had extensive conversations,” said Spirit veteran Tori Huster, the president of the NWSLPA. “I’m not sure in any of my free time I was off the phone. We had a lot of different ideas; a lot of people contributed to what you saw tonight.”

The NWSLPA also tweeted out a list of eight demands. Among them: to have every NWSL coach, general manager, board of governors representative and owner submit to the NWSLPA’s independent investigation and to dramatically expand the scope of the NWSL’s own investigation.

“The complicity, that’s the concerning part because there’s been no indication that that’s going to change,” said Jennifer Muller, one of the leaders of Gotham’s Cloud 9 supporters group. “There’s been no indication that’s going to change from the ownership folks and people are still in the league that allowed this to happen and allowed people to get rehired — people like Paul Riley. That’s what concerns me.”

The accusations have reverberated along the top echelon of the NWSL’s power structure: Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned Friday night, with a three-woman executive committee taking over league operations, and Spirit CEO and controlling owner Steve Baldwin announced in a statement Tuesday morning that he was stepping down “at the recent request of our players.”

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The Spirit’s players responded en masse that evening, releasing a statement lambasting Baldwin for the timing of his resignation — during training, the day before a game — and calling for him to sell his stake in the franchise to his female co-owner, Y. Michele Kang. The players also criticized Baldwin for passing control of team operations to Ben Olsen, the recently hired club president and former D.C. United coach who they said “has virtually no experience in the role you left to him.”

“When we asked you to step aside, step back from management, we clearly meant you should not retain any management control,” the Spirit players said. “Let us be clear. The person we trust is Michele. She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens. She believes that this can be a profitable business and you have always said you intended to hand the team over female ownership. That moment is now.”

The NWSL’s systemic troubles loomed across the league Wednesday night. In Cary, N.C., the Courage hosted Racing Louisville, whose male coach, Christy Holly, was fired this past summer “for cause,” the club said at the time. In the sixth minute there, players took part in the same midfield demonstration.

Helping to call the Courage-Racing game was Kaylyn Kyle, a former NWSL and Canadian national team player. She grew emotional when she revealed that she also suffered abusive behavior in her playing days and did not speak up about it at the time.

“If this isn’t a shut-up-and-listen-to-these-players moment, I don’t really know what is,” Kyle said. “Devastated, disgusted, but I’m not shocked, and that’s the problem.”

“I played in this league where this was normalized, and that’s not okay,” Kyle continued. “… These women that have had to face this and felt like they didn’t have a voice, they were too scared to come out and speak, they were scared of losing their job where they get paid nothing anyway — imagine being put in a situation like that. Imagine someone like myself, and I’ve always been outspoken, that was scared to say anything about it. Whether it was from coaches, whether it was that verbal abuse, whether it was that emotional abuse, abuse is abuse.”

In the late game, the Houston Dash visited the Portland Thorns, who employed Riley from 2014 to 2015 before cutting ties with him amid misconduct allegations that were not publicly shared at the time — the source of the six-year timeline acknowledged in Wednesday’s demonstrations. In a statement Tuesday, supporters groups for the Thorns and Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers said they would boycott buying gear and concessions until the teams — which share ownership — made reforms. And an hour before kickoff, the Thorns announced that General Manager Gavin Wilkinson had been placed on administrative leave during an ongoing independent investigation, shortly after the Thorns’ players released a statement demanding, among other things, an outside probe.

“The players of the NWSL represent the very best that our sport and our society has to offer,” the NWSL executive board said in a statement. “ … Sadly, our league and clubs have far too often failed to show up and deliver for players. The heartbreak of the last several weeks is simply a symptom of a system that has left players unprotected and a league that has not lived up to its promise. We are so incredibly sorry for the pain felt by so many, and are absolutely committed to working with the players, and all our stakeholders, to fix it.”

Ostensibly a home game for Gotham, the match here was played in the Philadelphia suburbs to give Gotham forward Carli Lloyd — the 39-year-old American soccer legend who is retiring at season’s end — an opportunity to play a send-off match near her hometown of Delran, N.J. A boisterous crowd of traveling Gotham fans and locals ready to cheer on their hometown hero turned out, with only a few Spirit fans dotted among the crowd.

One Washington fan who did travel could be seen sporting a mask with a simple message to Baldwin: “Sell the team.”

“Top to bottom, we just need to root out all the people that just make our league seem so unprofessional and so unsafe for players to be a part of,” Gotham fan Shay Eugene said. “Just listening to what the players want could go a long way to restoring faith in the league.”

Note: The NWSL announced rescheduled dates for four of the five matches that were postponed this past weekend, with the Spirit’s trip to face the Courage moved to 7:30 p.m. next Wednesday.

Des Bieler contributed to this report.

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