NWSL: We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Get There

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The fifth National Women’s Soccer League is well in the rearview mirror.  National team players are in camp, while overseas leagues like the Australian W-League and England’s FA WSL are underway.

Looking back on the NWSL, the excitement and action of the season was clearly memorable. We had  Sam Kerr scoring goals on her way to the Golden Boot and MVP awards, Marta elevating the play of the Pride and guiding them to the first playoff appearance for an expansion team, and Christine Sinclair leading the Portland Thorns to their second league title.

However, not all the action stayed on the pitch.

Those that followed the league closely will remember the nebulous NWSL disciplinary committee suspending Seattle Reign defender Merritt Mathias and Thorns forward Tyler Lussi. However, even those paying close attention would probably have a challenging time actually explaining the league policy and inner workings of the DisCo, and that’s a problem. As the league becomes more stable and mature, there should be a higher expectation for defined league policies and transparency on how those policies function.

To illustrate the point, it’s worth taking a moment to consider things on the men’s side. At Orlando this year, for example, a couple players had off-the-field issues involving the law. After their arrests, these players were placed into Major League Soccer’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health (SABH) policy. This program covers a range of issues, including the codification of player suspensions, potential behavioral health assessments, and treatment for the player if required. The idea is to directly address the direct issue of player arrests, while taking a “whole person” approach that focuses on player wellness as well as simple punishment.

Thankfully, as far as we know, this type of program hasn’t been needed in the NWSL. But there have been some close cases, with one recent prominent example being the Alex Morgan alcohol-related incident at Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park. The end result of that incident was Morgan and members of her group being escorted out after a day of drinking around the world. Nobody in the group was arrested.

Now, this incident is worth discussing not because of what actually happened. As far as we know, this was an isolated incident, with no reason to expect any recurring problem. The only reason the story received global attention is because of who Alex Morgan is. However, while there is no reason to think anything serious happened here, and no need to rehash the minor details, it did call attention to the question of underlying policy. Because, when asked whether they had a something similar to the MLS SABH policy, the NWSL responded that they did not have any set policy, and would handle any instance on a case-by-case basis.

The SABH policy also governs drug testing. Federated players compete in Olympic and international competitions, in which drug testing is normal, but we have no information about whether the league’s other players might fit into a league drug testing policy. It wouldn’t be shocking if the NWSL drug tested the players somehow–other women’s sporting organizations like the WNBA and LPGA have systems in place–but we have no information about whether it actually happens. And given the general bare bones standards set by the league, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if the non-federation players are not drug tested. The league is focusing on raising standards from bare-bones to merely acceptable. It’s possible that drug testing simply hasn’t made the cut.  Maybe, just like with the substance abuse policy, they’re operating on a case-by-case basis.

The question: is that the best approach for a growing league?

Back in May, Amanda Duffy was questioned on the NFL policy known as the Rooney Rule, which requires a team to interview a minority candidate for open positions like head coach. The thought here is to promote diversity within the coaching ranks, a point made now that Laura Harvey has stepped down as Seattle Reign head coach. Her response was not all that surprising.

Generally, as a society we prefer to establish policies that are clearly stated, in which actions are treated equally. Anything else risks creating awkward situations and double standards. Had the situation with Alex Morgan escalated into something worse would the league have taken any action or would U.S. Soccer have stepped in? What if the Morgan incident had also included non-federated players? What sort of actions would those players face, and would all the players be treated equally? Could an amateur player looking to make a team turn to performing enhancing drugs, knowing there is no system to prevent it and catch a potential culprit? If so, doesn’t that create an awful incentive for other players struggling to make the roster to engage in similar experiments?

It’s time the NWSL front office establish a formal policy, so that players, front offices, and coaches can understand the rules and play the game fairly. As a growing league, it’s understandable they’ve prioritized other things, but the time for creating policy on the fly is over.

The WNBA uses the NBA as a model for its policy. Is there a good reason why the NWSL couldn’t do the same, and adopt a variation of the MLS SABH policy? Surely, given how involved U.S. Soccer is in the league, it would be no difficult thing.

This would also be a perfect opportunity for the league to act in good faith, and engage with the newly formed NWSL Players Association. That could improve relations with the players, and help set the tone for productive arrangements when a union is eventually formed. 

The old patchwork system, where federated players operate under one set of rules set by the national team, and everyone else operates in a series of grey areas, is no longer acceptable. Players shouldn’t have to speculate about consequences. Fans and media shouldn’t have to speculate either. 

Just create a policy, NWSL. You’ve got a perfectly good guide available in the MLS policy. Don’t wait until a crisis happens. The league has spent a lot of time being reactive. It’s time to start being proactive.

Image courtesy of Leanne Keator

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