Clarkson’s suspension and what it means — Conversation with NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman — Must-click woso links
The IX: Soccer Monday with Annie M. Peterson, May 2, 2022
Shame that the season kicked off on a somewhat sour note, with Dash coach James Clarkson’s suspension.
For those of you unfamiliar with the situation, Clarkson was suspended last week amid an investigation to “review current and historic complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.”
The investigation stretches back to last year. Clarkson was the only remaining coach in the NWSL that was also with his team at the start of last season. All the others have either left the league, like Mark Parsons, switched teams, like Freya Coombe, or resigned or were dismissed in light of allegations of misconduct. Those on that latter list include Paul Riley, Farid Benstiti, Rory Dames, Christy Holly and Richie Burke.
That is shocking. What if that happened in any other professional sports league?
Perhaps there’s a shift that has started, where athletes come first. Will we see the same in other leagues?
At the college level, the Florida Gators fired coach Tony Amato last week after just one season because of alleged verbal abuse and claims he inappropriately addressed players’ weights. It was even alleged that players didn’t have enough to eat on a road trip as a way of making them lose weight. A former manager estimated four or five players struggled with eating disorders.
When as many as five players on a team develop eating disorders, it has crossed a line beyond simply conveying healthy eating habits for optimal performance.
It was a good thing that both the Dash and the NWSL acted to protect the players before the investigations were concluded.
I spoke to new NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman last week in advance of the NWSL season (see below) and asked her about the Clarkson investigation. Here’s what she said.
“I think the important takeaway for you and for people who are reading is to know that this is the manifestation of the process that the league and the players’ association put in place which provided a pathway for individuals to bring forward issues and for those issues to be investigated and managed appropriately. And so while we never like to have to have situations like this happen, the fact that the process worked the way it was intended to, and that all of the appropriate parties worked together on the interim solution and the next steps was really important and constructive overall for the progress that the league is making on this topic.”
I also asked Berman what she would say to fans dismayed over how these things keep happening.
“The first is just to say that, of course, much of the groundwork for this has been established over the last six months prior to me joining, so in my initial days, I’ve gotten myself up to speed and familiar with the new NWSL policy on discrimination, harassment and bullying, which is obviously guiding the policy as it relates to what appropriate conduct is in the league, and the standards in which we and the players association are holding ourselves to. But then it’s also just looking at the other mechanisms within our system, and levers that we can pull to ensure that everybody is appropriately on notice of the expectations of both the league office, our teams, our players and the union. And that’s something that I’m actively thinking about and exploring, whether there’s anything else that we can do proactively.
“But I would say that, as most companies do, having procedures in place that provide a pathway for people to bring forward complaints is really what is necessary, and exactly what occurred in this particular situation. The fact that there is something to bring forward a complaint about is obviously not a positive thing, but the fact that a complaint was brought forward, and it was addressed is something that I hope that fans will recognize is our system working the way it’s intended. We’d hope to have a system and a culture where these issues are no longer happening, but to the extent they are happening, we at least now can start to have some confidence that the players and the individuals have confidence in our ability to be responsive and handle the matter appropriately.”
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Five at The IX: NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman
This is just a bit of my interview with new NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman. It was wide ranging and she was generous with her time, which I appreciated. I used some of this for my season preview for AP.
QUESTION: What are you looking forward to most about your first season as commissioner?
BERMAN: Oh, so much. I’m looking forward to really immersing myself in soccer and the women’s soccer ecosystem. I love that these women and these athletes are cultural icons and inspiring the next generation of not just little girls, but little boys. I was actually on the phone with a close friend last night who I was catching up with and she told me that her son who’s eight years old, dressed as Megan Rapinoe for Halloween this past Halloween. I mean that is the thing, that is the opportunity that we have to unlock because these women have transcended the cultural narrative and are representative of what women can accomplish in the world. And I’m just so proud to have the opportunity to influence the future of the league and to help them achieve their success.
QUESTION: What would you say are your biggest challenges going heading into this year?
BERMAN: Well, for me personally, just the sort of self-imposed pressure that I feel to deliver results in a short period of time recognizing that the Challenge Cup at least is underway, the season is about to be underway. There’s a lot I have to learn and a lot I want to do in a very short period of time. So figuring out our priorities and sequencing that plan is really, for me, probably is going to be the most challenging thing. And really setting realistic expectations for both myself and the board about what we can accomplish in the short, medium and long term.
QUESTION: I know you just took office recently, but have you been able to visit the teams and meet with players? Are you embarking on an introduction tour?
BERMAN: I have started a listening tour virtually, and have been meeting with the union. I had the opportunity to meet with the players search committee who were involved in my hiring and that group of players was really fantastic to get to know. I met with the full the full league of players, or at least invited them, to an intro call where I had an opportunity to introduce myself and share my contact information and let them know that we’d love to hear from them. As we go forward, I will absolutely be seeking opportunities to meet directly in more intimate environments with players. I’ve had two meetings with the Black Womens Players Collective and we have a third scheduled in the coming weeks and I’m really excited to dig in on how the league can support their initiatives and their goals to amplify messages and programming related to inclusion from a race and ethnicity perspective. I guess the only group of players or team that I had the opportunity to meet in person was actually before I started, the Red Bulls hosted Gotham at a game and honored the team on the field and they invited me down and I had the chance to meet the team that day. But as I make my rounds, I absolutely we’ll be taking every opportunity to spend time directly with players, and in person with our ownership groups and with team front office staff.
QUESTION: How important is forging a relationship with the union?
BERMAN: The relationship with the union is right up there with the most important stakeholders that the league has to maintain a constructive relationship with, along with media partners and sponsors. And it probably won’t surprise you to know that the player association relationship to me personally is a priority. My background is that I’m a labor lawyer, I actually was inspired to work in sports through labor relations. And I know that sounds strange, but I was always captivated, actually, by how reliant the professional sports industry domestically is on its labor management relationship. And so I decided to pursue my career in sport, really through the avenue of becoming a labor lawyer. I have a really sort of fundamental appreciation of the importance of the relationship between the league and the player association and I intend to cultivate the relationship with Meghan Burke and the player reps very proactively to ensure that we have the kind of relationship that can problem solve as we move forward and work together on collaborating to make sure this league can achieve its ultimate success there. There’s nothing more important than the strength of that partnership.
QUESTION: Do you believe the league is healthy?
BERMAN: I do. And I think there’s there’s a couple of evidence proof concept around that. I mean, Certainly the health of expansion teams is always a good indicator of the health of the league and we see what San Diego and Angel City have been accomplishing and are accomplishing and excited to see 20,000 plus people and at the bank this weekend in LA, but there’s also the number of inbounds that I’ve received personally since the announcement on March 9, from prospective investors who want an expansion team, from brands who want to partner and invest in the NWSL in the sponsorship space, to third party media support wanting to help to amplify the messages of growth for the league. There’s just an immense amount of what feels to me like pent up demand for this league to be able to prove its value moving forward and it has me very enthusiastic about the future and the health of the league.
|By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson, AP Women’s Soccer
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