After releasing a statement that now-former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke was stepping down citing “health concerns,” the picture of the situation for Burke and the Spirit has become clearer — and much more troubling.
A bombshell investigative report by Washington Post reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy revealed that at least four Spirit players have left the team over the past two years over Burke’s treatment, which according to the report, ranged from verbal and emotional abuse, racially insensitive comments which included uses of the N-word, and threats to individual players.
“On the heels of our announcement yesterday that Coach Burke was resigning, a Washington Post reporter contacted the Spirit with allegations of mistreatment–verbal and emotional abuse leveled at players–by Coach Burke,” read a statement released by Spirit owner Steve Baldwin. “We take these allegations very seriously and are undertaking an immediate investigation. Burke has been suspended pending the investigation and is prohibited from contacting players and staff and our facilities. We, as a team, will not tolerate any situation for our players and staff that is less than professional. Our athletes, and all of those who support them, deserve the absolute best.”
On a Zoom call with reporters which was scheduled before news of Burke’s alleged behavior broke, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird called the allegations “very credible” and said that an investigation into Burke’s behavior and conduct was underway, but declined to offer any other specifics. The Washington Spirit have not responded to a list of questions sent by Venus Sports.
The Spirit organization had originally announced in a statement on August 10 that Burke had stepped down due to “health concerns.” Reporting by multiple reporters at The Athletic late last night claimed that according to multiple sources, Burke “was in fact fired as head coach of the Spirit, and they are unaware of any health issues for Burke.”
The allegations detailed in Wednesday’s article, while deeply troubling, are not entirely new for Burke. Reporting dating back to 2019 at the time of Burke’s initial hiring by the Spirit had alleged bullying and abuse perpetrated by the coach while in charge of boy’s youth teams FC Virginia and a DC United academy team. Former players alleged at the time that Burke singled out individual players in his tirades, used epithets and demoralizing language and used homophobic slurs in insults and jokes.
Kellie Herring, a parent of a former FC Virginia player, told Washington Post reporter Steven Goff in 2019 that she and her husband were “most upset [about] abusive language and subversive behavior that he invokes for players who don’t perform for him. He is your best friend if you play well for him. He will treat you well. You will be a hero for him. He will be best friends with your family. He loves to love those players who perform for him.”
After Goff’s report, Steph Yang reported for Black and Red United that a player for DC United’s U-23 team experienced similar treatment by Burke when he coached the team on an interim basis in 2015.
The Spirit stood by Burke amid those early allegations, telling reporters that the claims were investigated by the club and claimed that results of an initial investigation by FC Virginia warranted no further action.
“I read it, and I was immediately like: ‘How did this guy get hired? Those seem like really credible allegations,’ ” Kaiya McCullough, a former Spirit player whose alleged harmful experiences with Burke were detailed in Clancy’s article, told the newspaper. McCullough told the Post that the Spirit’s initial handling of the 2019 allegations against Burke made her feel like no one within the organization cared. Venus Sports has reached out to McCullough with a request for comment.
“This is probably the most petrified I’ve been about something in a long time,” McCullough wrote in a statement on her Twitter page after the Post’s reporting was published. “I’m a firm believer that speaking out when things are wrong and unjust is the only way forward, and my hope is that this is the first step in serious change for players everywhere.”
This is an update to a report by Venus Sports which appeared on the site Tuesday, August 10. The original article read as follows:
Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke has been re-assigned to a front-office role for health reasons, the team announced today.
“Yesterday Richie advised me of some health concerns and we mutually agreed that it was in the best interests of him and of the club for him to step down as our coach,” said Spirit President of Sporting Operations in a statement. “Once Richie’s health improves, he will join the sporting operations front office staff.”
Best says that a search for Burke’s replacement is underway, and in the meantime he “will support Kris Ward, Paul Crichton, and our staff to prepare for our match on Friday,” against Houston Dash.
Burke has been in charge of the Spirit since January 2019 after being appointed to oversee a rebuild of the club after a 2-17-5 season in 2018. Burke has led the Spirit to winning records in 2019 and through two abridged competitions in 2020. The Spirit are currently 5-3-5 with 18 points and sit in 7th place in an oft-shifting 2021 NWSL table.
This is a developing story. More to come.