If you’re even just a casual NWSL fan, you’ll notice that every now and again, a player isn’t on the game-day lineup. Not for injury, at least not that you’re aware of, and not for a disciplinary reason as far as you can remember (and in my experience, red cards tend to stick out in your memory).
But if you’re a die-hard NWSL fan, the kind who can remember off the top of their head just how many yellows a favorite player is sitting on heading into the upcoming week, you’ll probably notice the “Excused Absence” designation that’s popped up on Weekly Injury Reports this season.
The new addition to the report this year came at the behest of the NWSL’s Media Association, who asked for some sort of clarification on player absences when not out for an injury or illness. But what this additional information has done is highlighted an interesting element of NWSL play and player management this season. And so I’d like to take some time to talk about Excused Absences, the NWSL, and professional sports in general.
Those who have been around the NWSL since at least the end of the third season, after the US players rejoined their teams riding their World Cup glory, might remember a bit of drama in the 2015 post-season, when fan-favorite Ali Krieger decided to attend her father’s wedding instead of playing in Washington’s semi-final against the Seattle Reign. Krieger took a lot of heat from league fans for choosing to put her family above her team, and eventually put out a heartfelt message on her website, where she shared her regret that she couldn’t be in two places at once.
My family has come second to football for many, many years and I feel that in my heart it was time I put them first. I would regret not being there for the rest of my life, and I’m extremely happy to be in my Dad’s wedding. I have full confidence in my teammates and I can’t wait to congratulate them in person when they return to DC.
I honestly hadn’t thought of Krieger’s absence since that day, until I noticed, and kept noticing, the Excused Absence qualifiers on the weekly injury reports this season. Some teams offered additional information, revealing that a player was away to attend an award ceremony in her home country (Sam Kerr, Week 3), or graduate from college (Raquel Rodriguez, Week 4). Others were to take an entrance exam for medical school (Daphne Corboz, Week 4) or to attend a family wedding (Kelley O’Hara, Week 5). Still others offered no other information, just that a player would not be in attendance for the week’s game and that it was not due to any injury, illness, or discipline.
(And then there was Carli Lloyd’s entire 2016 season, which seemed to be one gigantic excused absence, at least as far as the people who love to hate her and those who hate to love her saw it.)
To be fair, I probably wouldn’t have paid attention if not for a few players I enjoy watching week to week appearing on the list as excused. But it got me thinking and it made me wonder, what is the effect of these Excused Absences on the league? Does the Excused Absence policy (is there one?) negatively impact or affect the NWSL? Either the play and performance of teams and players, or the perception of the league by others?
Because here’s what my first and initial thought about Excused Absences was:
Excusing players to attend a wedding, to take an exam, etc, reflects and affirms the opinion of those outside the sport who feel that a women’s soccer league is not something to be taken seriously.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging individual players for their non-soccer priorities or family commitments. But I do wonder how the NWSL looks in comparison to other sports–women’s and men’s leagues–where this is concerned.
So, after an entirely non-scientific research process, here’s what I found for “Excused Absence” across the American professional sports landscape.
Players in the NFL have been listed with “Excused Absences,” yes, but how, and for what, and when, reveals a marked difference from the NWSL. In most cases I came across, players had received an excused absence from a training camp, practice, or exhibition game.
In 2016, Tom Brady was excused from a pre-season game in order to attend memorial services for a family member (he was allowed to play in pre-season games before having to serve a multiple game suspension beginning Opening Weekend of the regular season). Doug Martin was given an excused absence from practice the same year, but this was in anticipation of being disciplined for violating the league’s drug policy.
Kayvon Webster was excused from practice in 2014 for a personal family matter, CJ Spiller from a pre-season game in 2013 after his step-grandfather shot four people and killed two, and then himself. That same year, Riley Cooper was given an “excused absence” to seek counseling after making a racial slur, and Brandon Marshall was excused from four days of camp in the pre-season for a previously scheduled follow-up appointment regarding surgery he’d had earlier that year.
In the case of the NFL, an excused absence is sometimes given, but in cases where the stakes are not particularly high. A pre-season game that means little for the outcome of the season, a day or two of practice, or a late arrival to a weeks-long pre-season training camp.
In the NBA, excused absences aren’t infrequent, but there aren’t many either. In 2017 Ricky Rubio has been excused for “personal reasons” no details provided. In 2016, LaMarcus Aldridge was given an excused absence from a pre-season game to receive a Hall of Honor award from his college, while long-time player Udonis Haslem received one so he could see his son play in a state football final. Kemba Walker was given an excused absence from a December game “to tend to a personal matter,” and Lou Williams was excused from a practice late in the year.
2014 saw Tony Parker excused from the start of preseason camp to recover after a long flight home from France and a delayed flight in Chicago. Before that, excused absences included Derrick Rose, excused from an in-season practice for personal reasons (2011); Delonte West, excused from a pre-season match-up to “handle personal business” that some suggest was related to “mental sickness and legal troubles” (2009); and Shawn Kemp, listed with an excused absence in 2001, just prior to checking into a drug rehabilitation program.
Unlike the NFL, the NBA (and several other sports leagues) has a number of international players who compete for their national teams, as well as some players (domestic or international) who join leagues overseas during the off-season. In some cases, these players are given excused absences to accommodate their time away or even just to help account for recovery time after long and tiring travel. But like the NFL, the NBA’s absences, in the majority of the cases I came across, were for non-competitive events. Players were excused from camps, practices, or pre-season games for the most part, and only rarely from in-season games.
As for the NHL, the excused absences include Kyle Okposo’s 2017 absence from practice the day after the All-Star game, Robin Lehner, who was excused from a Friday practice before starting in his third straight game, and Anders Nilsson, who was excused from a practice in order to travel back from Sweden where he was tending to a personal matter.
In 2016, nine members of the Detroit Red Wings were excused from training camp for national team duties at the World Cup that year, and in 2012, three players on the Capitals were excused from practice sessions in order to “avoid overtaxing them” during one of the busier parts of the season. One of those three, Alex Ovechkin, was “given the day off” in 2009, after suffering a big hit during a game the day before, though reports stressed that the two factors were unrelated.
The situation for the NHL is fairly similar to the NBA, though I saw more instances of players being given excused absences for recovery or rest during the season in this league. Or, at least, an openness to admitting that this is what the excused absences were for. And, like the NBA, the NHL has an 82-game regular season. That’s 82 games per team per season. By comparison, the NFL’s regular season is only 16 games, and missing one means missing a sixteenth (6.25%) of the season. Missing a single game of the NBA or NHL? Less than 1.5% of the total games. So it’s a little easier to see why a player might be granted an excused absence from an in-season game. He’s got 81 others to play.
Probably the most interesting excused absence I’ve seen reported is that of Leonys Martin in 2017, who was allowed to report late to training camp after being called to testify in a federal criminal conspiracy and alien smuggling trial. This same year, Dellin Betances was designated as having an excused absence from training camp until a contract dispute was successfully arbitrated.
In 2016, Chase Headley was given an unexpected excused absence to attend to his family after complications in his son’s surgery necessitated further medical intervention, and Aroldis Chapman missed two days of spring training for a family matter, which was suspected to be related to an investigation into accusations of domestic violence. Then, in 2007, Barry Bonds was given three days off during spring training to return home and spend time with his family. That same year, Manny Ramirez was allowed to report late to training, possibly to attend to a sick mother. Ramirez was also given an excused absence to miss his first game with the Red Sox in the 2004 season when he returned to Miami to become a citizen of the United States. As the team’s manager said at the time, “If he didn’t do it today, we’re not talking about (a delay of) weeks or months. It’s like, maybe, a year.”
But remember how many games the NBA and NHL play a season? MLB players have twice that. The MLB season is 162 games long. Missing a day of training camp, a practice, or even a single game for a personal reason? In total it counts for a tiny fraction of their contractual commitments.
Most notably, MLB offers its players a three-day excused paternity leave for the birth of a child. To date, it’s the only men’s professional league in the States to have that built into the players’ CBA; in the NFL, NBA, and NHL, the decision to excuse a player for the birth of a child is made on a team by team, and case by case, basis. (The league also has an official bereavement list as well, for when a player’s spouse or an immediate family member has a serious illness or passes away.) A player on paternity leave can request between one and three consecutive days away when placed on the paternity list, and many have utilized the benefit since its inception. The policy probably came to the notice of the general public when, in 2014, Daniel Murphy (NY Mets) missed the first two games of the season in order to see his first child born. He was widely criticized by sports radio hosts and others, but received the support of his teammates, his front office, and the league for his decision.
Finally, at least for the men’s leagues, there’s the MLS. Kei Kamara began 2016 with an excused absence from the start of training camp, but while the team cited his family as the reason for the delayed arrival, others suspected a budding contract dispute might be the real reason. In 2015, Kenny Coopers had a similar excused absence from his team, missing the first four weeks of training “with what was described as an ‘excused absence.” He was then waived by the team, however, suggesting that in this case, “excused absence” was code for the contract dispute he was engaged in with the team at the time.
In 2014, Matt Pickens was excused from a portion of preseason to try out for another team, after an injury in 2013 saw his starting spot go to Clint Irwin. Obafemi Martins was excused from practice in 2013 in order to deal with a family matter; this came after he’d been given a longer (and excused) break mid-season in recognition of his play in Europe before the season started and his efforts in recent practices and games. Before that, in 2012, Javier Morales received an excused absence for the birth of his second son. Like most of the American athletic leagues, the MLS does not have a paternity leave policy, and decisions are left up to individual clubs.
2011 saw Real Salt Lake excuse absences for three players to join national teams before international matches. The players missed part of a pre-season trip to Phoenix where the team was scheduled to play a few matches. The February 9th games were official FIFA friendlies, and players were required to be released by their clubs for 48 hours according to the International Match Calendar policy. That same year, David Beckham was excused by his club in Week 10 of the season for Gary Neville’s testimonial match, a decision which saw no small amount of criticism from fans and sportswriters. This absence came after Beckham missed portions of preseason and left the club in order to attend the wedding of Prince William. Steve Davis suggested in a Sports Illustrated article, in fact, that Beckham’s absence, and the team’s acquiescence to Beckham’s requests, was “alerting the world that MLS is just a little plaything, not a competition to be taken seriously.”
But men’s leagues aren’t the only professional sports organizations, and so I looked into the women’s side as well.
Okay, to be honest, I looked, but the NWHL is only in its second year and I didn’t find anything for them. The NWSL is the league that prompted this article, and so I don’t need to list it again, which … thanks to the dearth of professional women’s athletic leagues in the US … leaves me with the WNBA.
From what I’ve seen, in 2011, Monica Wright was given an excused absence from a game for a family emergency (no additional details were given). Nakia Sanford had an excused absence from a “Bowling with the Mystics” team event in 2007 after taking “an elbow to the mouth during practice earlier in the day.” (Yes, not exactly the kind of excused absence I mean to talk about, but it’s not like there were tons from me to choose from in the WNBA–more on that later.)
Then, in 2006, Tanisha Wright was given an excused absence from a practice in order to attend her graduation ceremony from Penn State, and Janeth Arcain was excused from most of preseason camp each season from 1998-2001. The reason? The Brazilian national team player also plays professionally in her home country, and the seasons overlap each other.
Now, unlike their male counterpart, the WNBA only plays 34 regular season games. (The NWSL, at least this season, plays 22). But you might notice two things from the WNBA list above. First, excused absences seem more limited than the male leagues–and this might be because missing even a single game is a bigger issue in leagues with shorter seasons. And second, most of the links for the WNBA information came not from team releases or sports journalists, but blogs. But don’t get me started on the absence of women’s athletics and performances in sports journalism. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
So, you might be wondering why I put you through that summary of excused absences across the professional sports leagues in America.
(And before I explain, I need to point out the obvious flaws in my “research,” such that it was–I didn’t bother to look up how each league or team defined “excused absence.” I literally just did google searches for “[League Abbreviation] and ‘excused absence,'” which doesn’t even pass the lowest test of academic rigor. And when the results appeared, I only looked as far as–maybe–page three. So it’s not a comprehensive survey, sure, but I think I found enough to be able to make some speculative conclusions. Still, if you object to my research process, feel free to report me to the official department of Who Gives a Fuck; I’m sure you have them on speed-dial.)
Let me be the first to assure you that it’s not because I want to shame the players in the NWSL for their absences. I’m also not here to commiserate that you bought a ticket to a game just to see Christine Nairn and she wasn’t with the team that day. I’m not here to entertain complaints about Alex Morgan being your favorite player and travelling all the way to Orlando to see Alex Morgan play and Alex Morgan being away from the team because her grandma broke her hip or something (Alex Morgan’s grandmother is fine, to my knowledge, please don’t ask me about Alex Morgan’s grandmother). And honestly, I don’t care if Daphne Corboz took the MCAT or if Kelley O’Hara went to a cousin’s wedding (okay, I care enough to hope that Corboz did well and that O’Hara danced the funky chicken, obviously) but my interest in talking about this is not about individual players and instead about perception and progress.
My first question is whether absences suggest to the outside world that the NWSL doesn’t have to be taken seriously because it doesn’t take itself seriously. (A question akin to Steve Davis’ worry over Beckham in 2011.)
In the NFL, player absences are so rare because each game counts. When you only have 16 chances to climb to the top of the standings, every game means something. Writing in the aftermath of the Daniel Murphy/Boomer Esiason MLB paternity blow-out in 2014, a columnist at XOJane wrote that
I can’t imagine a single situation in which a starting player would voluntarily miss an NFL game. With only 16 regular season games, there’s too much on the line. One loss can mean a team misses the playoffs. And with pro careers that only last an average of three years, that’s just not a risk I can imagine any of those guys taking.
Even missing practice, for most in the NFL would be verboten. Because practice is where you make your case to be out there under the lights on game day. And there are so few opportunities to make it to the top. In 2016, Ben Roethlisberger took a few days away from practice during the week for the birth of his third child, and Landry Jones got to step into the coveted role of “first-team QB” for a little while, just long enough to get a feel for the position he’s been working toward his entire life. The next week, when Landry’s own wife gave birth, he took a few hours, his wife reportedly telling him not to miss a day of practice. Rookie QB Cardale Jones almost missed the birth of his child in 2016; he was literally on his way to practice when coach Rex Ryan told him to go back, that he’d regret missing the birth for the rest of his life.
By in comparison, in a season only six games longer than the NFL’s, what does it say to miss a practice? To miss a game? If the NWSL and its players want the sport to be taken seriously–as it should be–by fans, by non-fans, by the general public? When you’ve got players in the NFL literally missing the births of children just for the chance to make an impression in a mid-week practice, what does it say about the NWSL’s intensity, it’s drive, to release players from their duties seemingly so easily?
On the other hand.
What if it’s not about the number of games at all? What if it’s not about intensity or drive or any of that.
What if it’s about the players? About a change in the culture of American sports franchises?
In 2011, the MLB Players Association negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that included paternity leave.
For baseball players.
In a nation known for being one of the worst for paid maternity leave for new mothers.
And I’m not slamming the baseball players or the MLBPA (get it, slamming them). I think it’s great.
Even more than great, maybe it’s a sign of a more progressive sports league, of a more humanitarian, person-centered approach to the management of players and teams. MLB’s policy reminds fans and foes alike that at the end of the day, the players and their well-rounded lives are a priority.
Yes, it may be easier to accomplish with a sport that seems to play more games than there are days in the season (or actually do, I’m tired of Googling at the moment and that seems like it might involve more math than I’m comfortable with) but, also, maybe it’s just worth it?
The NBA renegotiated their CBA in late-2016, and it doesn’t appear that something like paternity leave was on the players’ radar, or at least not an issue with enough support to make it to the negotiating table. The NFL and NHL’s current CBAs are scheduled to expire in 2020/2021, so between now and then, they, too, could see a more person-focused CBA.
In the meantime, as far as the NWSL is concerned, (on a team-by-team, player-by-player basis, anyway), the off-the-pitch development and priorities of its players seem to be recognized as important and essential elements of their talent management protocols.
So, in the end, I’m still left with questions. Is this a good thing for the NWSL? Or does it do more harm to teams and the league than is worth standing for?
Honestly, I don’t know.
What I do know is that I’m afraid it does more harm than good.
And maybe that’s something to think about?