Being NWSL Media: The Guilt That Comes With Knowing But Being Unable to Say
Since the allegations against Richie Burke and the Washington Spirit came out, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the actions Burke allegedly took, the apparent cover-up, or the fact that allegations against Burke have been known since he was hired. The fact that I wrote, in June 2019, about the need to have a conversation about allegations against Burke hasn’t escaped me either.
As I’ve been thinking of the mess in Washington and the piece I wrote more than two years ago, I’ve also been thinking of my history covering women’s soccer. I’ve been covering it in one form or another since 2015. I've watched the USWNT win two World Cups. I've covered amazing NWSL comebacks and losses and written about lawsuits and mutinies. I have watched some of the greatest women’s soccer players put on kits for different clubs around this league--while covering horrible behavior by those same clubs between matches.
Many of us who cover the NWSL are not paid. Most of us do it as a part-time gig, and we don't have media training--a difference from the media for leagues like MLS or EPL. But if not for us, then no one might cover the NWSL with the same depth. I’ve talked before about the emails and weird hours and oddity that comes with covering women’s soccer. There are days where this does not feel like a job because it’s fun or exciting (or mind numbingly boring as I look over stats upon stats upon stats to try to glean a nugget of knowledge), but it is a job. While I am not paid for it - and again a reminder that most of the people who cover this league are not paid for it or are not paid well - it is a job.
And part of the job that’s not talked about is that you learn things you wish you didn’t know. You learn that your heroes are fallible and that public perception and personal faults can sometimes be 180 degrees from each other. You learn which coaches like to talk and which coaches are willing to bend the truth. You learn wonderful things that you can do nothing about. Things that leave you wondering why clubs won’t help themselves out and publicize these really cool things. And you learn about horrible things. About abusive things. About the things that are off the record, locked behind a two-foot steel door. The things no one will go on record for. The things they just can’t go on record for.
You learn pretty early on, if you have any common sense, that you can’t report some things without having on-the-record information. Because the first time you put information out there without corroboration will be the last time anyone gives you information. I'm not talking about looking at the national team and saying these players look uncomfortable playing together. I am talking about things that need to be brought to light - abuses of power, coaches who scream at players, terrible living conditions for some players. All of these things need corroboration by people willing to give you the information in a usable way.
One of the hardest parts of a job you are not really trained for is to know a thing, to know people are being harmed, and not be able to do anything about it. There is, I think, a sense in each of us who cover this league that we want to do good work. We want to do work that is seen as quality and we want to make things better. The fact that sometimes there is nothing we can do if no one we talk to is willing to go on record can be maddening.
I want to be clear that I do not blame players or staff that do not go on record because they fear for their jobs or their safety. It is not the job of someone who is in a terrible situation to come forward if they believe it will do them more harm. But it is difficult nonetheless when no one is willing to say what is going on and there’s nothing you can do to report it.
I believe that anyone who wants to pick up a pen and paper, or a keyboard and word processor, should be able to cover the NWSL. I believe that the more voices we have, and the more diverse the thoughts of those voices, the better off women's soccer, soccer in general and sports will be. I believe that as firmly as I believe nearly anything else. But the guilt of knowing and not being able to speak keeps me up some nights. Because my day job pays me better than nearly any of the players I cover. Knowing a group so talented makes so little and puts up with so much can break you sometimes.
I also believe it is important that there are people who are paid full time to cover women's soccer. It is important that media companies and newspapers and sites pay people to cover the NWSL. Because as talented and as loyal as the people who cover this for free (or for nearly free) are at covering this league, there is so much that we can’t do and only so much we can. This is not an indictment of my colleagues or the people who cover Washington Spirit. You will be hard-pressed to find a group more dedicated, more competent and with a keener insight into a team than they. But one Washington Post story can outweigh an entire career for any one of us in independent media. That is the simple math and metrics we face.
So, what’s the point of the 1,400 or so words I’ve written here?
I don’t know if there an overall narrative. This is a lot of me trying to process feelings around covering the NWSL and women’s soccer that are just hard and complex and messy. It’s not meant to dissuade someone from covering this league, but it might be a warning to prepare for things you may not understand you’ll face.
I have had the feeling for a while and now more than ever I feel media around women’s soccer is a little broken, It’s a lot broken sometimes. There is a strong bias in overemphasizing positives and under emphasizing anything that remotely is negative. Everything is groundbreaking, everything is wonderful and yellow cards are a moral failing from the players, or maybe the ref depending on which side of the ball you’re on. It’s a sport that relies on a media landscape that in large part uses unpaid and untrained people who are passionate and thoughtful and who would walk over hot coals in summer to try to do a good job. I should not have to tell you to support them. Support sites that hire smart, thoughtful writers who will hunt down the stories that need to be told. Women’s soccer is a maddeningly beautiful, soul crushingly wonderful ride that we’re all on together.
I’ve put six years into covering women’s soccer, and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon. One day I hope working conditions are high enough in the NWSL that someone like Richie Burke can’t get a job because someone like Steve Baldwin doesn’t own a team. I hope the majority of women’s soccer writers are paid fairly, able to track down stories that right now feel like they might never be told otherwise. I hope those who cover the league can go three months or six months or even a full year without having to write about coaches and owners - mostly white men - behaving badly because the rules just don’t apply to them.
Sometimes it feels like this sport is full of the worst people who do the worst things. But the sport isn’t what harasses and abuses. People do. People who have no place in the sport. So as long as they are around, I will be, too. Trying to tell the stories I can tell and working with colleagues both at this web site and elsewhere to try to expose what we can. I hope not just to highlight the bad, the horrible and the terrible, but the wonderful, the odd and the oddly wonderful.