Early this week, an independent investigation into player abuse in the National Women’s Soccer League exposed several failures by the NWSL and the United States Soccer Federation.
The investigation, which was conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, is just the latest in a long line of disgusting acts against professional female athletes, and the first question I had was “How do we deter this from happening again? Seriously?”
The answer I often read is “We need to change the culture surrounding women’s sports, because once these women are viewed in a professional, athletic setting, these types of heinous acts won’t be perpetuated.” While I totally agree with that assessment, it’s also become apparent that making a legitimate change in the culture will take years, decades even. In that time, we could see dozens of other abuse victims, and that’s dozens too many. It’s become a broken record. The victim speaks out. Everyone expresses their sympathy. Everyone agrees that changes need to be made, but is unwilling to make a substantial change. A minor change is made and we hear nothing for a year or two and then another scandal pops up. I believe we’re moving in the right direction. That said, I wanted to determine the best short-term solution(s) for preventing sexual abuse in women’s sports.
I spoke with Julianna Kirschner, lecturer for the Master of Communication Management program at the University of Southern California, on the matter. Kirschner told Deadspin, “I share your frustration with this, because in the end if it continues to be, it almost becomes white noise.
“The fact that scandals like this continue to happen is evidence of a lack of transparency at all levels,” Kirschner continued. “What should happen is a more thorough look at some of the hiring practices that these teams participate in. The three coaches that were identified in the Yates report were all men, and I’m not going to say that a man can never coach a women’s team, that’s ridiculous. At the same time though, there is a lack of diverse coaches.”
Kirschner even pointed to professional men’s leagues as an example of a lack of diverse coaching hires. “The NFL is not addressing this at all. A lot of the coaching staffs are white, whereas many of the players are Black. If that’s a problem in the NFL, that goes to show that there are numerous leagues as well that need to make similar changes. I feel like the NFL is one of the more egregious ones.”
The NFL has made a surface-level effort to promote diversified coaching hires in recent years. The Rooney Rule was put in place to mandate NFL teams interview at least one minority candidate for open head coach and GM positions. Meanwhile, the NFL started awarding teams compensatory draft picks for losing minority coaches or executives to promotions with other teams. Although these rules were meant to promote diversity, they’ve recently been exposed for subjecting minority coaches to sham interviews.
No example better illustrates that statement than the Brian Flores lawsuit. Despite being a very well-respected head coach who did magnificent work with Miami, Flores was fired after three seasons. He believed he had an opportunity to get the head coaching gig with the New York Giants. However, before his scheduled interview, the Giants had allegedly selected then-Bills HC Brian Daboll. This made it clear that the Rooney Rule was not promoting more diverse hires, but was rather just a box for teams to check and pat themselves on the back with after all was said and done.
“I like the Rooney Rule, or similar inclusiveness measures, as a first step for other leagues. But the biggest thing that should happen, and something like this would have drastically helped the National Women’s Soccer League, is a cultural shift where people actually see the value in making these hires,” said Kirschner.
Kirschner did admit that instilling such a culture would take a very long time though, and would likely require transparency we, as fans, can’t even fathom currently. Kirschner stressed that there are far too many systemic issues in place that would constantly fight against such a shift. It would have to be a slow, methodical grind to create a system that promotes transparency, reporting abuse, and player wellness, but the result would be well worth it.
Kirschner offered another solution: Market women’s sports more aggressively. It’s no secret that women’s sports have struggled to generate the same enthusiasm from fans and the media as their male counterparts. Yet, that lack of branding perpetuates a culture for bad people to take advantage of the women involved.
“If there was more of an investment in broadcasting women’s sports and creating an opportunity to promote these sports, then there would be more opportunity for women’s sports to have the support of fans to call to action some of the changes that need to happen,” explained Kirschner. “The main message in the Yates report is transparency, and if more people are invested in the sport, then more people will be calling for transparency, and the easier it will be for people to see through blatant non-transparency.”
The fight for broadcasting more women’s sports has been going on for awhile now, but there’s no greater argument than preventing abuse in those sports. Giving these athletes a fanbase or a bigger platform to stand on would not only deter team staff and executives from taking advantage of their players, but would also encourage more athletes to come forward as the fear of retaliation wouldn’t be as prevalent with a large fanbase backing the athletes. That said, the market for women’s sports continues to be one of the toughest to crack, and until those fanbases are more established, that fear of retaliation for coming forward still looms large.
The fact that the public didn’t know about the sexual abuse so many NWSL players faced for years is evidence that there’s likely much more abuse going on throughout American women’s sports that we don’t know about.
“I definitely think these things are happening,” said Kirschner. “Especially in terms of how we define tough coaching, you know. ‘We’re going to do things a certain way in order to obtain a certain outcome.’ We see this often in men’s sports, too. These things are happening all the time from every single level. The more that people acknowledge these things, the disparaging comments, or making fun of players as a way to elicit a specific response, the more this type of abuse will start to disappear. That is not a kind of touch coaching or tough love. That is abuse.”
The ultimate goal is to stop these types of abuses from happening in the first place. And that won’t happen until a cultural shift valuing diversity has been adopted throughout all American pro sports leagues.