The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NWSL’s toxic dispute between a man who failed and the woman who should replace him

Spirit owner Steve Baldwin has been locked in a battle for control of the team for months. (Scott Taetsch for The Washington Post)
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The root problem in the National Women’s Soccer League abuse scandal is that the owners haven’t run the organization as a real business. This is vividly apparent in the petty person of Washington Spirit owner Steve Baldwin, who treated a championship team as a backbiting crony clique and apparently thinks a “fiduciary” is a birdbath.

That the NWSL allowed the Spirit’s noxious and contentious ownership-limbo situation to go on for so long is in keeping with league leadership’s habit of deafening silence at the top, which enabled hand-tossing amateurs and abusers to operate at will and on whim. Minority-owner Y. Michele Kang has had to try to solve the Spirit’s problems on her own with a boardroom power move, which is hardly reassuring about the entire league’s management. It’s a good thing she’s a pro. She appears to be the only one in the joint.

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Kang’s bid to seize control of the franchise from Baldwin — running circles around him to secure the support of other shareholders — should be quickly sustained by the NWSL Board of Governors, which met this week to hear from Kang and Baldwin. Baldwin was utterly unfit to own a public-facing organization and to manage its sale, and anyone who doubts this should ask a simple question: What right-thinking manager, what properly motivated executive, in a million years would hire his daughter’s youth soccer coach as a “president of operations” of anything? That’s the highhanded, small-minded, contemptuous personal-fiefdom mentality with which Baldwin has operated the Spirit.

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Kang apparently offered Baldwin a handsome $35 million for her to take over the franchise in the lea of its workplace-abuse scandal, and the Spirit players full-throatedly backed her. Instead, Baldwin rejected the bid and has courted a considerably lower one from billionaire Todd Boehly, out of what appears to be mere spite. Baldwin has been locked in a feud with Kang for months over his blatant buddying and mismanagement of the organization, and he reportedly has refused to sell to her under any circumstances, instead entering into “exclusive negotiations” with Boehly, part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers and Sparks. This provoked such ire from fellow Spirit investors, who include Tom Daschle, that they threatened legal action over his seemingly intentional torpedoing of the team and have thrown their support and shares behind Kang.

How is it that Baldwin has been allowed to hold so many women organizationally hostage in this miserable situation for so long? The Spirit became a smoking churn of sexism and unprofessionalism under this guy. His handpicked CEO Larry Best, former club coach of Baldwin’s daughter, who apparently thought he could use the term “dumb broad” in the office and there wouldn’t be hell-to-pay consequences. His meathead head coach Richie Burke threw abusive screaming fits, and the entire organization was completely forlorn of any sort of legitimate human resources practices.

In the months since the NWSL’s 60-page investigative finding that the Spirit was a “toxic” workplace, Baldwin’s conduct has only compounded the astonishing offensiveness of the organization — and erased any doubt about the origin-source of its climate. Though Baldwin nominally stepped down in disgrace as CEO and managing partner months ago, he has hijacked the sale process with what appears to be an “ego-driven battle,” as the players charged in a letter to him back in October. He determinedly plunged the roster of 28 players and staff into a state of lingering uncertainty while he balked and acted duplicitously. All apparently because he couldn’t stand to be bested by a female competitor.

“Let us be clear,” the players wrote to Baldwin months ago. “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 to female ownership. That moment is now.”

All the Spirit players have ever really asked for is a minimally professional workplace that is not populated by underqualified louts who use degrading nicknames for women. As forward Ashley Hatch said at one point, “We want there to be an NWSL where you don’t have to explain to rookies or young players to prepare for an abusive coach or toxic environment.”

Instead, Baldwin seems to have gone out of his way to hamstring the organization, to block Kang, to insult the players for daring to make demands and to impede and obstruct any kind of healthy restart, plunging the franchise into rancor and vengeance-seeking. As the NWSL leadership self-examines how a supposed flagship women’s league could have such a widespread workplace problem, it should start with the fact that it allowed a male owner to run its championship team with an attitude of overt personal hostility. It’s long past time to end that and give the team a fresh beginning.