Last Saturday, the Chicago Red Stars put in a brave, gutsy, inspiring, and quality performance in the NWSL Championship. They have been putting in that sort of performance all season, despite losing both their captain and their vice-captain, and dealing with a host of injuries and absences both tragic and tragically self-inflicted. This time, however, they were not able to get the result that they wanted, as the class and youth of the Washington Spirit proved too much for them. The Red Stars would not be joining the Sky in bringing a trophy back to Chicago.
Then, hours after that heartbreaking loss, the Red Stars announced that head coach Rory Dames had resigned. Soon after that announcement, a Washington Post article featuring interviews with multiple former Red Stars outlined years of emotional abuse and manipulation by Dames against his players, at both the youth and professional levels. Suddenly, in a season with so much to celebrate and so much to unpack, the focus would again shift to an abusive man instead of the players on the field.
That has been the pattern of the NWSL season so far. It was fitting, perhaps, that the Spirit were themselves rocked by an abuse scandal in the middle of the season, with Kris Ward serving as interim coach and a very public ownership dispute happening off the field. Articles written in the build up to the final noted that Dames had become during the course of the season the longest tenured coach in the league. But, with scrutiny of the league increasing with its popularity, Dames’ history of abuse was bound to come out eventually.
There are deeply upsetting details in the Washington Post article, indicative of a coach who had no respect for his player’s boundaries or needs, who was drunk on the power he had over young women desperate to squeeze a living out of the sport they loved. This is yet another example of why the abysmal compensation given to the majority of the league’s players puts them in dangerous situations, where they are forced to choose between jeopardizing what little livelihood they are making and living with abuse. The power dynamic of the league is such that these players, who are also sometimes supporting families as well as themselves, are left without recourse.
Even being a star does not protect you in this league. Christen Press may not have been a household name in 2014 when she joined the Red Stars, but she was a World Cup winner and legitimate superstar by the end of her tenure, and still faced abuse from Dames. When she went to report this abuse to US Soccer, the organization paying her salary, the abuse was normalized and Press was pressured to continue playing under Dames or risk losing her spot on the national team (and the additional compensation that went along with it).
There are more actors to blame here than just Dames and US Soccer. Where was Dames’s coaching staff when he repeatedly harassed his players during practice? Why did team owner Arnim Whisler, who knew about the allegations against Dames in 2018, refuse to act to protect the players on his team? Did the expanded ownership group know about Dames’ history of abuse? Did any of them ever think to proactively check in on the wellbeing of the players, the same ones who make this league what it is, who inspired them to invest in the NWSL in the first place?
No doubt the reckoning over Dames’s abusive behavior will continue to play out. There is room for optimism here, in that fans have shown a consistent dedication to supporting players and calling out both team ownership and league management for their failures. Additionally, the NWSL Players’ Association has continued to grow in strength in the past year, supporting players through a trying season and demanding change.
The need for transformation is clear. The league will not be a safe space for players until it is no longer a safe space for abusers, and the models used in American sports have time and again shown that they are not capable of keeping abusers out. The power dynamic of the NWSL is obviously imbalanced, and it goes beyond compensation. While offering players more financial freedom and flexibility would be a huge step towards evening out the power dynamics in the league, that’s no protection against ownership groups and league management who will continue to enable abusers behind the scenes. New models ought to be explored, new forms of team ownership and management that put players’ health and safety first. This has been a tumultuous and painful season for many in and around the NWSL, and players have shown bravery and resilience in continuing to fight for better.
It’s time to do more than just hear their stories, it’s time for them to be given the reins.
(Image courtesy of Chicago Red Stars twitter)