Last year, on the eve of the NWSL championship—that’s the National Women’s Soccer League, our professional league—I wrote a post about the conditions we were working under in an effort to show people just how much the players in the NWSL give and give up to support and build this league. I didn’t run it at the time because I hoped that the many, many things about our league that needed to get better would get better, especially after we’d just won the World Cup.
Sunday’s game between my team, the Seattle Reign, and the Western New York Flash, where both teams were forced to play in the outfield of a baseball field, on a field that was dangerously narrow, and absurd for a professional team to play on, was an outrageous example of what we as players deal with on an ongoing basis.
— Christine Sinclair (@sincy12) July 10, 2016
While Sunday’s field issues made national headlines, which we were all so glad to see, the truth is that the standards of our league are so inconsistent and disappointing across the board, these kinds of incidents are really the rule and not the exception. Apologizing after the fact, as commissioner Jeff Plush did, is not enough. Neither is minimizing it, as Western New York coach Paul Riley did by saying his team would “play or practice on whatever field Seattle puts us on next week,” and that “we should just get on with it.”
The ‘we know things aren’t up to par, but we’re going ahead with them anyway’ attitude, quite honestly, is a fairly accurate reflection of how the NWSL has functioned during the four years of its existence.
It’s far past time that the women in our league start being treated like professional athletes—otherwise, we might as well just admit that the NWSL is just a semi-pro league, and stop pretending like it’s the best women’s league in the world.
I do want to take a moment to acknowledge my team, the Seattle Reign and our leadership—our incredible coach, Laura Harvey, and our phenomenal owners, Bill and Teresa Predmore, who treat the players like professionals and do their best to ensure we have what we need to be successful on field. While most teams travel the day before a game to save on travel costs, we always leave two days early to ensure we’re fresh and well-rested on game day. The organization has always put performance first.
The realities of the league as a whole, however, are in stark contrast.
- Most players are paid salaries that place them below the poverty line. The season lasts for seven months, and many players are making somewhere between $6,000 to $14,000 for that entire time. For many players, being a professional soccer player was their dream. Yet they’re struggling to get by. In addition, our season actually has been lengthened without an increase in pay, or incentives to make the playoffs. Basically, we’re being asked to play for free for several months of the season.
- Players on some teams have told me that they don’t even receive per diem or meal money on the road, which is deplorable. (If that’s true, those teams should not be in the league.) Others have told me that they’re forced to live together like college athletes.
- The league doesn’t provide proper kits, especially for goalkeepers. It doesn’t provide players adequate shoes or gloves if they don’t have their own contracts.
- Teams also cut costs by not traveling with a goalkeeper coach or kit man.
- Training on the road is a mess. The balls we’re provided with are often flat. The lines on the training fields are sometimes crooked.
- We aren’t allowed to train on game fields at every venue, and in fact, places like Kansas put us on turf to practice. (My cleats actually melted on the turf in Kansas because it was so hot!) When we trained in Washington DC, there were lightning storms, and the staff at the training facility wouldn’t open up available rooms to allow us to take cover inside. (We found our way in anyway, thanks to Laura and our staff, and made the most of it by playing volleyball to get a sweat.)
- Games aren’t much better. Many of the fields and equipment are poor. At our one of our practice fields, the net was secured in some places with Zip ties and players cut their hands.
- Often times, we won’t shower at the venues because the showers are disgusting and unsanitary.
- We do not have close to adequate security. During games, fans are allowed to stand directly behind the goal and yell the most obscene things you can imagine. With the vitriol that comes out of people’s mouths, who knows what they’re capable of, and there’s usually virtually no security there to do anything about it. Again, people are allowed to stand literally feet from the goal. And after the games, the walk to the locker room from the field is often right through tailgating fans, again without security.
- The league hasn’t adopted FIFA rules so there is no appeal structure for suspensions, bad calls, etc. FIFA rules would also ensure minimum field dimensions, something currently not in place.
- Our referees are not up to professional standards. Yesterday, the referee in the Reign-Flash game actually reversed her own call after watching a replay! Our referees are supposed to be professional caliber. The strength of the referees directly impacts player safety and inexperienced refs put us at risk on the field. Our safety should never be compromised, ever. The refs should be protecting us, which they often fail to do. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people come at me cleats up that never are penalized for it. Referees have ruined more games than I can count, and there is no system in place with repercussions for bad refereeing.
- Medical support is lacking. At Sunday’s game, they had no stretcher on the field when our goalkeeper, Haley Kopmeyer, was injured. They tried to put her in a baseball 4-wheeler that had dirt and equipment in it. She had to wait for the ambulance to move her carefully.
- There are no hotel standards. We have seen everything. Some of the places we stay at are abominable. We stayed at a Comfort Inn in Kansas that has a 1.0 star-rating on Yelp, and was filthy. In Houston, the Crown Plaza hotel we stayed in had bullet holes in a window, and prostitutes walking the street out front. A hotel in Portland was hosting a pornography convention where people dress up like animals. Other hotels have had bedbugs.
We have a crisis on our hands, and the players of the NWSL want to see more from our commissioner and our league. We lose a lot of players — quality players for the league — over time because they can’t afford it. In the end, to watch them realize their dreams aren’t sustainable is very hard to watch — and there are a lot of broken dreams for women in our sport.
Commissioner Plush, please: If you truly value the players in this league and want the NWSL to be a model for women’s professional leagues around the world, listen to what we’re saying. Go to some of these hotels, training facilities and games yourself. See the conditions of the league up close. And after you’ve taken it all in, be the leader we need you to be.
Until then, we the players stand united and those of us who play on the US National Team are using our platform to do more. As you might have seen over the past few days, USWNT players created an “Equal Play Equal Pay” t-shirt to promote our quest for equal pay. But equality is about more than just equal pay. It’s about fairness. And what’s happening in the NWSL is not fair.
To provide support to our professional teammates in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), the USWNT is directing 100% of its proceeds for the “Equal Play Equal Pay” t-shirt campaign to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Players Trust Fund. It’s not enough, but it’s a statement and one we hope will start the conversations and help push for change long overdue.
“Equal Play Equal Pay” t-shirts are now available here for $20 each.