The NWSL Players’ Association (NWSLPA), a player-led and player developed group, has been at the vanguard of protecting its players since its inception in 2017.
The NWSL is the third women’s league in America, with two others previously folding. The Women’s United Soccer Association, often abbreviated to the WUSA, was the world’s first women’s soccer league in which all the players were paid as professionals. The league, however, struggled to find a happy medium between paying players a proper wage and sustainability and went out of business in 2003.
The players tried to save the league. In fact, they took a 25 per cent pay cut before that fatal 2003 season, with the onus being on the league to ensure the minimum wage was $25,000 for all players. The sacrifices were not enough. One player who was a youth player at that time, Meghann Burke, is now executive director NWSLPA.
Away from the disturbing stories regarding coaches that have dominated headlines recently, the fight for secure working rights remains an ongoing one. So, what is the current situation for a player in the NWSL?
“It became evident that now is the time for a CBA [collective bargaining agreement] to provide clarity over the framework for players’ rights, to improve working conditions and minimum standards, and wages are a part of that,” explains Burke. “So I would say that the process of starting to think about a CBA started when we first formed in 2017, the players got more organised, we elected player representatives, we created an internal infrastructure.
“My predecessors, Yael Averbuch and Brooke Elby, started collecting basically just information from players like what’s important to you? What are we seeing? What are the patterns? What are the things that are systemic that we can address in a contract with the league, and that process probably started, you know, early 2020.”
In total, since Burke took the reins, there have been 16-18 bargaining sessions over Zoom, and even though there’s good progress in some areas, other contentious ones have yet to be figured out. In fact, one of these issues is a player’s minimum wage, currently at $22,000 or just over €19,000, which inspired NWSLPA to run a campaign called #NoMoreSideHustles, highlighting how many players work part-time to support their career, despite the NWSL being a successful professional league.
Another element is safe working conditions. One coach, Richie Burke, was hired despite having a history of being verbally abusive. Add to that the now-public fallout from the allegations surrounding Paul Riley. The NWSL still doesn’t have an anti-harassment policy or safeguarding in place.
“I think what’s different this season is that players are speaking out. I think you’re seeing that we want to take our league back. We really do believe in our hearts that this can be the best league in the world. And it’s because we believe these are the best players in the world.
“And we also know that in order to for this league to reach the next league to keep pushing to raise the standards to be more entertaining and get more fans on board. We have to purge the league of those who would abuse their power for reasons that have nothing to do with football. That’s priority one.”
Priorities two and three are ensuring players have, effectively, workers’ rights. For example, Fifa have recognised players can’t be fired in the middle of a contract from their clubs. NWSL contracts violate Fifa’s rules as they state you can be fired, given 24 hours, from your club, and the NWSL clubs can still hold players’ rights and prevent them from going elsewhere.
Add to that how wild NWSL transfers are. From the outside looking in, it looked as if certain players were traded to clubs with very little input from the player, and often players were moved halfway across the US with very little notice. Burke explains this is often the case, and seldom can it work out.
“There are instances where that works out for a player to get back to a place, their hometown or to be where they want to be, those instances do happen. Those are the good stories, right. But what I hear more often than are the not good stories.
“So the Kansas City and North Carolina trade, we had three players for the North Carolina Courage and the one that really comes to mind, Kristen Hamilton, who had lived in North Carolina for five or six years, she’s a fan favourite, tied to the community, and has been there for years. She’s a player representative for the Courage. You know, one day I had been in bargaining with Kristen and the next morning, I got a call from her.
“She asked me could I talk, and she was just like, ‘I’ve been traded’. She got a text Wednesday morning from the coach at like 8.45am saying to talk before training. Her coach explained you’ve been traded, along with two other players, to Kansas City. Amy Rodriguez was coming to North Carolina.
“And so, off you go after five or six years of being, you know, a loyal fan favourite, being in a community being committed to the club. By the way, this demonstrates to me how professional our players are. That doesn’t mean they loved it. It doesn’t mean it was the right thing. But it means that they show up and do their job.”
Despite all these challenges, Burke remains optimistic.
“We also know that we’re in a position to be able to raise the standard for international women’s football and demand a living wage so that players can singularly focus on football so that they don’t have to go work second, third or fourth jobs, to pay the bills. So I would say those are our top priorities. If I could wave a magic wand and get them all and get them down, you know tonight, I would do it, but we’re still kind of in the home stretch of negotiations. I am an optimist.”