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Failing to RISE: The NWSL Needs To Stop

One thing they don’t tell you when you start covering women’s soccer is you will have to deal with emails. A lot of emails. Emails about practice schedules, emails about players resigning (side note they always mean re-signing), emails about things teams are up to, emails about things the league is fining teams for being up to, post-game press conference emails. You even get emails to tell you to check your emails.

Then I checked Twitter on my break.

Well, that changes things.

So I went back to the email that was sitting in my archived emails list and opened it up.

"The National Women’s Soccer League announced today a partnership with RISE, a non-profit organization that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations. As part of the collaboration, RISE will provide a range of programming opportunities to the NWSL's players, coaches, and staff, including town hall-style discussions, leadership workshops, and community engagement opportunities.”

RISE boasts partners from Stanford in the west to Athlete Ally in the east. The Portland Timbers have partnered with them, so has the University of Washington. USA Swimming, Weightlifting, Track & Field and Volleyball use them, as do Dallas FC. Everyone from NFC North - Bears, Vikings, Packers and Lions - use them. To put it simply, a lot of sports-related groups have partnered with RISE. For a company founded in 2015, it’s an impressive list.

The problem is RISE has a board of directors that includes it's namesake and founder Stephen M. Ross - Mr. With Trump there’s “a lot of good” and “a lot of bad”; the NFL’s own Roger Goodell, who has never met a problem that couldn’t be solved by fining someone; and the NHL’s denier-in-chief Gary Bettman, among others.

And here the problem arises: The NWSL made a choice in the vacuum of business, and fans took that choice outside of the vacuum within 10 seconds. Why not partner with a group partnered with by so many other teams around the country, right? Why would the NWSL look at its fan base, its player base and what the league has been built on when making choices like partnerships?

Putting aside the purportedly noble reasons Mr. Ross had for founding RISE - Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality - he is a nonstarter for a segment of the NWSL’s fan base. His support for the former president should end the conversation in any context, but that support is doubly damning in the context of Ross creating and being vice chair or RISE while it does work that "educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations." From what I can find online about RISE, it seems like most other nonprofits created by a billionaire. While the staff of the organization features far more diversity of opinion than the board of directors, is any organization that features Ross' last name and the leadership RISE has free of their influence? Even if they have a Black woman as the CEO in Diahann Billings-Burford?

The bigger problem lies not with the NWSL partnering with RISE, but with the NWSL’s lack of thought in its choices. The league keeps making choices that, in a vacuum, may be semi-reasonable, but the logic falls on the floor like confetti the moment the seal is broken. It as if the NWSL is unable or unwilling to think outside the bubble of homogeneity of its front office and envision what fans will think when they read the press releases.

This ill thought-out decision caused a reaction on social media and then slid away from public view because of its timing in the middle of the Olympics. I can only find one other piece about the issues with the partnership that was written in the roughly two weeks since the announcement was made. A piece I strongly suggest you read, by the way. While this might not be a completely comprehensive search of the Internet (the first page of Google results does not hold all of the secrets of the universe no matter how much we wish it did), it does show the league has ultimately succeeded in having the news make a splash and then having people more or less move on.

If the NWSL wants meaningful change to happen, it has to be willing to make white players uncomfortable and to stop putting the burden onto BIPOC players and fans. Whatever else it does, the NWSL needs to move beyond working with groups created by billionaires who are openly down with Trump. Before the fans that have helped make it finally have had enough.


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