TACOMA, Wash. — It was raining, cold and miserable to be outside. Practice had already been moved to a turf field because the conditions were so muddy at Bellarmine High School in Tacoma. The OL Reign players had just finished a 2 1/2 hour practice, dodging the raindrops, which seemed constant on the early fall day.
But despite it all, the team's biggest stars and head coach, perhaps cold and tired, stopped to talk about the clouds currently hanging over the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL).
"I hope we're in a real moment of reckoning where we can turn this into real change and hopefully save the league," said star Megan Rapinoe. "Because as it stands right now, that's not really a league anybody wants to be a part of, and I think we put up with it for so long because we love the game, and you know we want this to succeed. So hopefully, we can move forward, and this can be a real watershed moment."
"I think we all have to look at ourselves in the mirror and figure out what's the next step," said Lu Barnes, the longtime Reign defensive stalwart who has been with the franchise from the beginning.
The NWSL canceled all games this past weekend after a series of stories painted a picture of a league with systemic sexual harassment issues and an unwillingness to stop it.
The Athletic first published the accounts of former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, who gave detailed accounts of their experience with longtime NWSL coach Paul Riley. The two women said Riley tormented, coerced, and threatened them and that their complaints were not heard. Riley continued to get jobs until he was fired after the Athletic's report.
Then, a day later, the Washington Post detailed how former OL Reign Coach Farid Benstiti was fired after a player stepped forward accusing him of verbal abuse. The Reign announced his departure earlier this year without explaining the full details to the public. Christy Holley of Louisville, and Richie Burke of Washington, have also been relieved of duties this year for abuse claims.
Rapinoe said Farrelly and Shim's story was well known within league circles.
"I mean, I certainly knew about it," said Rapinoe. "I would be surprised if a lot of people hadn't. I think a lot of people are obviously very happy to see a monster like that go."
NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned under pressure, as did the league's general counsel in the wake of the stories. U.S. Soccer has hired former acting U.S. Attorney Sally Yates to investigate the allegations and the league's response.
"Honestly, my initial emotion was I was just sad. I was angry. I was frustrated," said Reign Head Coach Laura Harvey about the Athletic's report. "I felt it was the most harrowing thing, I think [it's] one of the most harrowing things I've ever read."
Harvey has the unique perspective of being the one-time coach of the Reign, who was brought back to the franchise after Benstiti's dismissal.
When asked about that Wednesday, Harvey said, "Now I think that whenever I've been involved with this club, it's always been players first mentality. What is going to enable them to feel safe, to feel like they have a voice, to feel like the decisions that we make put them first? I think we've, we've tried to do that. Do I think that there's things that we as a league have to get better at? Yes, I think, is it a time for us to take a long hard look in the mirror and decide, you know, are there good things in this league? Yes, there are, you know there are, that's why we're still here."
U.S. Women's National Team and Orlando Pride Star Alex Morgan told the TODAY Show Tuesday that sexual harassment is a league-wide problem.
"I think you'd be surprised probably all over women's sports in general," said Barnes. "It obviously has come to light. Now, a lot of soccer, but we've seen it within, you know, gymnastics, you see it in college sports as well. So yeah, I think this is just something that I feel like the general population probably has known has been going on and has not been coming to light."
She said the team has been unified in its stance on canceling the games last week and how they are moving forward.
"I think our group has been very tight and very close, and we've given options to come in and train if you want to, and if not, to be taking time, that's OK too," said Barnes. "So I think as of right now, we just want everyone to be mentally healthy."
Rapinoe said she believes athlete pay also contributes to the issues at hand.
"I think sexual harassment, period, is prevalent everywhere," said Rapinoe. "If you're a woman, you've been sexually harassed in some sort of way, verbal or otherwise, just in the world. So yeah, I think it's prevalent. I think the power structures are super imbalanced. I think the lack of money that people make plays a huge part in it. You know, if you're making $6,000, that's a lot different power that you feel than if you're making even $50,000 or $100,000, and just the way that we are kept in one place, and really have no options. I think just sort of lends to this kind of culture of abuse."
Rapinoe was asked about her tweet to "burn it all down." She explained, "I think, just really like start from scratch on what's the most important thing and what are we trying to do. I think for us, obviously, to have a place to play is incredible, but if it's at the expense of, you know, our lives and our livelihoods and our dignity and harass and abuse and all that, I don't, I don't think that that's really worth it."
The OL Reign host the Chicago Red Stars at Cheney Stadium at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
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