NWSL Players Underpaid, Need Fund to ‘Afford Basic Living Expenses’

  • National Women’s Soccer League players are underpaid, with most athletes not making a living wage.
  • The players association has now established a trust to help players “afford basic living expenses.”
  • The emergency fund will also help players access mental health services after a tumultuous 2021 season.

The National Women’s Soccer League endured a ruthlessly tumultuous 2021 season, complete with several abuse scandals and a public ownership feud.

And most players can’t afford to cope.

With a maximum player salary of $52,500 and some players making as little as $22,000 annually, few besides the NWSL’s biggest stars have the money to seek out basic living expenses — let alone mental health services.

Kristie Mewis.



Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Now, the NWSL Players Association is stepping in. They’ve established a donation-based fund — the Support the Players National Emergency Trust (NET) — to help players pay for necessities like physical and mental healthcare, housing and travel, and more that they otherwise would not be able to afford.

“These professional athletes cannot afford to fly home when they lose a loved one, pay for a car repair, meet a deductible for a medical expense, or pay out-of-pocket costs associated with therapy to deal with the demands of the 2021 NWSL Season” The Players Impact founder Tracy Deforge said in the NWSLPA’s release. “This fund will provide much-needed emergency financial assistance to players in need.”

Deforge will be one of four trustees tasked with allocating funds from the NET to players who apply for assistance, the NWSLPA confirmed to Insider via email. Former USWNT player Stacey Enos, lawyer Donna Cohen, and former WPS player Kelsey Davis will round out the group of trustees.

Racing Louisville FC midfielder Freja Olofsson defends against NJ/NY Gotham FC forward Ifeoma Onumonu.

 

Racing Louisville FC midfielder Freja Olofsson defends against NJ/NY Gotham FC forward Ifeoma Onumonu.

Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

All players in the NWSL — and former professional players in the league, WUSA, or WPS who join the NWSLPA — can apply for funding beginning January 15, 2022. Fans can donate to the trust at www.SupportThePlayers.NET.

“Our players are among the best athletes in the world,” Davis said in the release. “They inspire and call us to action as to advance our sport and society in the ways of justice and equity. Our players deserve a livelihood where they can not only survive but thrive. We call on NWSL fans and supporters to join us in building this safety NET for players.”

NWSL players have gone through the wringer in 2021. Half of the league’s teams dismissed male head coaches for issues off the pitch, including sexual misconduct, verbal and emotional abuse, and racist and sexist conduct. A sixth club dismissed its general manager.

Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke (center).

 

Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke (center) was fired for abusive behavior.

Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Former North Carolina Courage coach and two-time NWSL Coach of the Year Paul Riley, who was widely regarded as one of the league’s foremost coaching minds, came under scrutiny in September after a bombshell report from The Athletic’s Meg Linehan detailed sexual abuse and coercion during his tenure as a head coach in the league. According to allegations from two of his former players — Sinead Farrelly and Meleana “Mana” Shim — Riley leveraged his position of authority to lure players into his bed, coerce them into sex, and force them to kiss one another for his pleasure.

Both Farrelly and Shim described grooming behavior from Riley, who capitalized on the players’ youth, inexperience, and dependence on him as a coach to push the boundaries of their relationships during his time at the helm of the Portland Thorns. And though the franchise and, later, the league were made aware of the allegations, early investigations into Riley’s conduct did not result in any repercussions.

Former NC Courage coach Paul Riley.

 

Former NC Courage coach Paul Riley.

AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned, and general counsel Lisa Levine was fired just days after Linehan published her article. The report alleged that Baird, Levine, and other league representatives failed to act upon learning of Farrelly’s and Shim’s accusations against Riley.

Fans and players alike continue to push for accountability beyond the ousting of Baird and Levine. Members of the Thorns’ front office who oversaw the investigation into Riley remain in positions of authority within the franchise. Likewise, those at the North Carolina Courage responsible for hiring Riley despite investigations into his conduct have yet to face any consequences for their oversight.

lisa baird

 

Former NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird.

Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The 2021 NWSL champions — the Washington Spirit — endured their own coaching abuse scandal, and an ownership feud has only complicated the situation. Players accused former head coach Richie Burke of verbal and emotional abuses, some of which were racist in nature.

And though Burke stepped down from his position due to “health concerns” in August, he wasn’t officially terminated for wrongdoing until more than a month later. Part of the dystfunction could be attributed to the not-so-secret internal power struggle between Spirit owners Y. Michele Kang and Steve Baldwin.

In the face of mounting public pressure, Baldwin stepped back from his role as CEO and managing partner of the Spirit and later confirmed his intention to sell his shares in the club. But the tech entrepreneur has repeatedly refused to sell to Kang despite players’ preference that she control the franchise going forward.

Fans hold signs lobbying Washington Spirit owner Steve Baldwin to sell his stake in the NWSL franchise.

 

Fans hold signs lobbying Washington Spirit owner Steve Baldwin to sell his stake in the NWSL franchise.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Racing Louisville FC’s Christy Holly, OL Reign’s Farid Benstiti, and the Chicago Red Stars’ Rory Dames were all terminated from their clubs as well, with all three departures tied to wrongdoing. NJ/NY Gotham FC also parted ways with then-General Manager Alyse LaHue in July for violating the anti-harrassment policy the league introduced just three months prior.

A league-wide reckoning ensued following the onslaught of malfeasance from authority figures across the NWSL. But with compensation still below a living wage for most, new franchises cropping up in expensive markets like San Diego and Los Angeles, and free agency still far-off for the 10-year-old league, the plight of the average NWSL player likely won’t be resolved with fresh legislation or new leadership.

The NWSLPA’s NET is a start. But after the NWSL’s own oversight caused so much harm to so many players across so many teams, perhaps the league itself should be the one footing the bill.

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