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What is US Soccer going to do with the NWSL?

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The allegations against one of the league’s most successful coaches appear to have started a reckoning.

Team USA WinterFest Presented by Hershey’s
NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird was ousted Friday after reports abuse by multiple teams
Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOC

The abuse, misconduct and negligence permeating the NWSL — most recently highlighted by the Athletic’s shocking story about the predatory nature of former NC Courage coach Paul Riley — dropped like a bomb in the American soccer landscape. The NWSL canceled this weekend’s slate of games at the request of the players, who were understandably in no mood to play.

Eventually, the show will go on, but the repercussions are likely to linger like a nuclear winter. With the NWSL demonstrably in no position to police itself, the organization tasked with the unpleasant duty of trying to sort through the damage and clean up the mess is the U.S. Soccer Federation. The Federation announced Friday afternoon they were launching an investigation.

The cleanup will be no easy task. The Federation, in its role trying to grow the game of soccer — the women’s game in particular — in the United States, partnered with the NWSL at its inception, investing significant resources into developing the domestic league after the fall of the WPS in 2012, which was predated by the collapse of its predecessor the WUSA in 2003. In addition to funding the salaries of NWSL players who were a part of the USWNT, the USSF served as the manager of the league, providing additional resources, including funding the salaries of key executives.

Both the NWSL and USSF have long sought to extricate themselves from that relationship, finding it more complicated than desired. The Federation ceased serving as manager in December 2020, and as of the 2022 season will no longer fund the salaries of NWSL players who are members of the USWNT. That does not mean there will be no financial support for the league. A source with the Federation confirmed there will be some ongoing financial investment, though the details of that arrangement were still being finalized.

With that in mind, the timing of the separation of the parties is fortuitous from the Federation’s perspective, given the conflict of interest that exists with a multi-million dollar investment by the USSF in the league. The Federation’s remit in addition to growing the game of soccer in the United States is to govern it, and that includes investigations. And discipline.

The USSF Bylaws — which the NWSL as an organization member is subject to — confer upon the Federation the ability to investigate its members to ensure they remain in good standing and comply with its rules. A violation as systematic as is alleged to have happened in this instance immediately caught the attention of the Federation, as they released a statement shortly after the story broke.

A simple statement and the suspension of the license of one coach of course was not enough, and the just-announced investigation promises to be a difficult time for all.

NWSL’s duty to protect players

Both through the US Soccer bylaws and (to a lesser degree) Professional League Standards, all professional leagues have an obligation to ensure the safety of their players. Bylaw 212, Section 1 (7) requires all members to establish programs to protect their players to remain in good standing, and maintain membership in the Federation.

Bylaw 212. GENERAL RESPONSIBILITIES

Section 1. As a condition for obtaining and maintaining membership in the Federation, each Organization Member shall satisfy all of the following requirements:

(7) if the Organization Member is responsible for recruiting, training, fielding or funding soccer players, establish a risk management program to promote the safety and protect the welfare of participants.

Additionally, the NWSL is required to provide a quick and fair process for resolving complaints from its members, and provide a fair hearing process to adjudicate those complaints. That includes allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

Section 3.

(6) The Organization Member shall provide prompt and equitable procedures for resolution of complaints of its members and procedures for fair notice and an opportunity for a hearing with respect to any complaint of any Athlete, coach, trainer, manager, administrator or official who is a member of the Organization Member, or a member organization thereof, concerning a proposed declaration that any such individual is ineligible to participate in the programs or other activities of such Organization Member or a member organization thereof and such procedures shall conform, as applicable, to the provisions of Part VII of these Bylaws.

(7) The Organization Member shall adopt policies prohibiting sexual and physical abuse.

Based on what has been revealed publicly, the NWSL and its teams have failed to uphold those standards. So where does the Federation go from here?

With the report that FIFA has already opened an investigation, it was only a matter of time until the Federation opened its own parallel review, and they probably won’t be the only one. But staying with the Federation, as the governing body, the USSF has the authority to review the compliance of its members with its bylaws (212, Section 3 (b)).

(b) The Federation may audit or review an Organization Member to determine compliance with the provisions of Section 3. The Federation’s review shall be performed by a task force or committee designated by the Board.

Given the previously outlined conflicts, the Federation will probably enlist an outside organization to conduct the review of the NWSL’s affairs. Given the scope of the allegations, it likely will be expensive, time-consuming and painful.

What can the federation do?

The Federation has a number of tools at its disposal, depending on how egregious and extensive the violations are. The Federation could impose any degree of sanctions, from financial, equitable to an effective “Death Penalty”: the termination of NWSL’s membership and de-sanctioning of the league. That’s possible if the Federation finds that conduct of the NWSL, on the whole, is contrary to the interests of the Federation, or soccer in the United States.

Bylaw 241. SUSPENSIONS, FINES, AND TERMINATIONS

Section 2. The Board may impose disciplinary sanctions, require corrective action, suspend, fine, or terminate (or any combination thereof) the membership of any Organization Member if the Board determines, in its sole discretion, that (1) the conduct of the Organization Member is contrary to the best interests of soccer or the Federation, or (2) the Organization Member has not complied with the requirements of its membership in the Federation. The Board may act only after providing notice to the Organization Member and conducting a hearing at which the Organization Member may present evidence in support of its position.

To be sure, the step of terminating the membership of the NWSL in the Federation would be extreme and unprecedented. At this point, at least, it also appears to be unlikely given that the Federation can order the league to take measures to clean up its act, like imposing strict vetting requirements on coaching and executive hires, providing timelines for compliance and requiring the current leadership at the league move on as a condition of continued membership.

Already a couple of shoes have dropped, with NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird and General Counsel Lisa Levine ousted from their positions with the league. Ultimately, if the Federation finds that the league is unwilling or unable to comply with the steps they deem necessary to remain in good standing, then a different discussion could be had about the viability of the NWSL as a member of the USSF.

In some ways, the mission of the Federation to grow soccer in the United States has come up against what is alleged to be the gross misconduct of one its primary members entrusted with seeing out that mission. To the neutral observer, that makes the betrayal even worse. Still, the Federation is likely to give the NWSL a chance to make things right, if they can. But the leash will be short, and the patience of fans thin.