By Christie Counts, March 7, 2023
The National Women’s Soccer League conducted an investigation that made headlines in early October in response to multiple reports and allegations of misconduct and abuse.
The controversy has brought attention to the long-standing issue of unequal treatment and pay in women’s soccer. Individuals and players at all levels raised questions about the league’s commitment to creating a safe and fair environment. Part of this conversation and expressions of disappointment stemmed from the Cal Poly Pomona women’s soccer team.
CPP’s women’s soccer players represent the future of women’s soccer, as their voices and perspectives are vital in the call for action against wrongdoing.
Bronco forward Nicole Thompson explained she watched a documentary on the NWSL players who accused their superiors of abuse and were ignored, which enabled those in power to remain in power without taking any responsibility or being punished for their actions.
“Or, even if they got fired from that club, they were still able to remain coaches,” said Thompson, “The system allowed it to continue happening, which is scary and also angering because that could be anybody, and they didn’t protect their players. It’s very disappointing to me.”
The yearlong investigation revealed a protracted history of systematic abuse that went unattended and gave coaches and governing officials in the NWSL an unhealthy power over their players. Permenently banned from the league were four male head coaches, and six teams were fined after the investigation concluded.
Paul Riley, Christy Holly, Rory Dames and Richie Burke are permanently restricted from all participation in the NWSL. The league also dropped a two-year employment ban on former Utah Royals coach Craig Harrington and former Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue.
There were also applied conditions to the Royals coach and Gotham general manager re-employment post-ban. Once their two-year penalty is concluded, they can return only by meeting specified conditions, such as accepting personal responsibility for inappropriate conduct and acknowledging their wrongdoing.
The clear rift between men and women in professional sports remained evident throughout these allegations and brought up a multitude of conversations, including the fight for equal pay in the U.S. women’s national team.
“I think people speaking up is helping break the cycle, but then it’s also about finding people who will actually listen Because people speak up all the time, but the girl that spoke in 2015 about what was happening to her right then, she was ignored,” Thompson said. “When people don’t listen, it’s harder for players to continue speaking up. And when you see it, even if it doesn’t happen to you but to someone in your similar demographic, it makes it feel like no one would listen to you.”
Female athletes are speaking up for their right to equal pay. The six-year dispute in a gender discrimination case against the U.S. Soccer Federation concluded with a $24 million settlement, $22 million of which will go directly to players.
The settlement clearly indicated the organization had not been paying its women’s team equally compared to their male counterparts. The women were being paid 83 cents per every dollar earned by a male player.
Professional female soccer players across the globe have spoken up about the unequal treatment they have been facing. Canada’s women’s team threatened to boycott a pre-World Cup camp in March over equal pay and support.
French soccer federation president Noël Le Graët resigned this month after accusations of harassment.
Fifteen players on Spain’s women’s team refused to play in protest at coach Jorge Vilda. Players are unhappy with the management of injuries, Vilda’s training sessions, team selection and the atmosphere within the locker room.
Recognition of abuse and malfeasance sparked outrage and confusion among fans and players who have vouched for the improvement of athlete treatment and more equitable pay in women’s soccer. Furthermore, players who strived to play professionally expressed disappointment and doubts in the NWSL’s direction.
“Your coach is such an important factor of your experience,” said Bronco sophomore goalkeeper, Audrey Brown. “Because for most athletes, your coach determines your playing time, which in most cases determines your happiness or mental health level and how you’re feeling. So you can be scared to talk out about your coach and scared of negative repercussions. And then when you see players talk out about their coach and then they don’t play and nothing happens, it builds into this cycle of lack of awareness — a lack of comfort and lack of conversation of the dark side of women’s soccer.”
Brown has had positive experiences with coaches throughout the 15 years she has played soccer. The goalie included CPP’s women’s coaching staff in this regard but voiced concern for those without a similar background of positive reinforcement.
Often women’s sports are dismissed as less important than men’s, subjecting female athletes to unequal treatment and discrimination.
Soccer is a predominantly male institution and is not excluded from large proportions of misogyny and sexism paired with far too few women in leadership roles. According to Zippia The Career Expert, there are currently over 130,000 head coaches currently in the United States, and as of 2021, 66% are men and 34% are women.
“For me growing up, I never had a female coach,” Brown said. “I always had a male coach, and I never had that mentor of a female coach in my life, but I obviously loved the coaches that I did have, but I do wish that I did have a female coach.”
The abuse and misconduct found in the investigation was proven to be pervasive and repetitious at the highest tiers of women’s professional soccer and their governing bodies. Many female college players have experienced varying degrees of this same abuse.
Tara Oper, current forward for the Broncos, shared a negative experience at her previous university and compared it conversely to her time at CPP.
“I hated soccer because of them, except for one coach. Our assistant coach was nice and encouraged me, but how the head coach treated us was not good,” Oper said. “He didn’t separate the person from the player. How we played on the field determined how he would treat us off the field, and he would make these little mean comments.”
Oper voiced appreciation for her current coaching staff and how they push her to be better on and off the field.
“The coaching staff is supportive on and off the field,” Oper said. “They treat you as a person and not just a player and push you to be the best you can possibly be.”
In order to create a safer, more equitable and respectful environment for all women in soccer, it is imperative to listen its players, including CPP’s very own student-athletes.
Feature image by Jackson Gray
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