Gotham FC, Washington Spirit players protest during NWSL game as fans give strong support

By Jonathan Tannenwald

CHESTER, Pa. — Players and staff from Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit stopped Wednesday's game at Subaru Park in the sixth minute and came together at the center circle in a display of solidarity organized by the NWSL Players Association, after weeks of reports on alleged abuse within teams around the league.

The same stoppage took place at all of Wednesday's games around the National Women's Soccer League. A statement from the NWSLPA said the timing was "in honor of the 6 years it took for Mana [Shim], Sinead [Farrelly], and all those who fought for too long to be heard."

Included in the NWSLPA's statement was a call to fans "to stand in silence with us. During that time, we ask you to stand in that pain and discomfort with us, as we consider what we have been asked to sit with for too long."

In fact, the action drew a standing ovation from the crowd of 9,532.

"Tonight, we reclaim our place on the field, because we will not let our joy be taken from us," the NWSLPA's statement said. "But this is not business as usual."

The players’ demands

The NWSLPA's statement came with a series of specific requests of the league and club owners, including:

— That "Every coach, General Manager, representative on the Board of Governors, and owner voluntarily submit to the Players Association's independent investigation into abusive conduct" by the close of business on Oct. 13.

— That the league's ongoing investigation "be expanded to include an investigation of each of the twelve NWSL Clubs represented on the Board of Governors to determine whether any abuse, whether presently known or unknown, has occurred at any point in time."

— That the same investigation "further be expanded to determine whether any League Office staff, NWSL Club, or person in a position of power within NWSL neglected to investigate concerns of abuse raised by any player or employee at any point in time."

— That "any person in a position of power (e.g. owner, representative on the Board of Governors, General Manager, or Management Supervisor) at the time that a Club either hired or separated from employment a coach who was, is, or will be under investigation for abuse be suspended from any governance or oversight role within NWSL pending the conclusion of an independent investigation, effectively immediately."

— That "representatives of the Players Association have an opportunity to meet with potential Commissioner candidates and have a meaningful opportunity to be heard in the selection of the next Commissioner."

The statement also called for a series of further disclosures regarding existing investigations around the league.

"The reckoning has already begun," the NWSLPA's statement concluded. "We will not be silent. We will be relentless in our pursuit of a league that deserves the players in it."

After the stoppage ended, the Cloud 9 supporters' club for Gotham FC chanted, "No more silence!"

Support from fans

Before the game, which ended in a scoreless tie, Gotham's Cloud 9 supporters' club hung a series of banners on the River End stands with clear messages of their own: "#BelieveBlackPlayers," "BLACK LIVES MATTER," "PROTECT OUR PLAYERS," "#NoMoreSideHustles" (a slogan used by the NWSL Players Association), and "CONTRACT NOW!" (a reference to collective bargaining talks).

"Good times or bad, we're here for the players, and we're following their lead on this, because the Players Association has been out there doing a phenomenal job," Cloud 9 leader Jen Muller said.

The most prominent banner read "WE SUPPORT SPIRIT FANS. SELL THE TEAM, BALDWIN," a reference to Washington principal owner Steve Baldwin's alleged role in abuse by now-fired manager Richie Burke, and reports by the Washington Post and The Athletic on misogyny and harassment within the club.

On Tuesday, Spirit players wrote a letter to Baldwin pushing him to sell. He announced he was stepping down as CEO and managing partner, but did not say he would sell his ownership stake. The players responded to this with another letter posted on their social media accounts demanding that he sell to part-owner Y. Michele Kang, whom they described as "the person we trust."

Muller has long been at the forefront of Cloud 9′s support for its team and advocacy toward the team and league to improve working conditions. The kind of fan advocacy seen in American soccer, especially women's soccer, isn't always seen in this country's other sports. It is part of what draws Muller to the community.

"I'm a fan of other sports — I had Yankee season tickets for a long time — but this is where I'm stuck, and I mean that in a good way," she said. "Because you feel like you're a part of something, and that you can bring about change. You feel it in the good times, but it means something, I think, more in times like this when you know that you can be a part of the change for good — hopefully."

Douglas Reyes-Ceron, a co-founder of the Washington-based Rose Room Collective supporters' club, thanked Cloud 9 for the solidarity.

"It's been an exhausting month for all Spirit supporters across the scene, but one of the most endearing parts that's been giving us energy and the willpower to keep going is the response from the entire NWSL and soccer community at large," he told The Inquirer in a text message as he watched the game from home. "I don't know how this will end, but we know we're giving it our all, along with the rest of the community across the U.S."

Union manager Jim Curtin, who attended the game with his family, gave his support to the cause in a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

"It's just a really difficult moment, I think, for the league, for everything that's gone on this past week, but it has raised awareness on things that have been done really, really poorly, he said.

Curtin met Farrelly — one of the players who spoke to The Athletic about alleged abuse by former North Carolina Courage, Portland Thorns, and Philadelphia Independence manager Paul Riley — when she was in one of the Union's youth camps many years ago.

"I really commend her for her strength and courage, and I think it's inspiring a lot more people to come out more now," Curtin said. "And there's a lot of repercussions that will come with it, and hopefully change and improvement."

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