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Two things about the Washington Spirit and NJ/NY Gotham FC standing together

The story of this game was not the game itself

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Washington Spirit v NJ/NY Gotham City FC Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

The Washington Spirit and NJ/NY Gotham FC battled to a 0-0 draw in a game with massive NWSL playoff implications...and that was not the story on Wednesday night at Subaru Park. Respectfully, the story was not the celebration of Carli Lloyd’s retirement either, even after Gotham went through the difficulty of moving the game to the Philly suburbs in her honor (though players from both teams still made sure to pay their respects after the match).

The story of the game was obviously NWSL players coming together in solidarity after horrific revelations of abuse came out late last week, with games rescheduled from this past weekend and all of Wednesday’s games paused in the 6th minute for players to stand as one at midfield.

With that in mind, it feels like it’s not the time to get bogged down in tactics or breaking down plays like these pieces normally do. We’ll get back to that this weekend, but in this moment, the focus needs to be on the movement for change in the NWSL.

The only way forward

This game featured an extraordinary moment in which all 40 players stood arm in arm at midfield in solidarity in the 6th minute. The choice of time was intentional: it took six years for Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim’s voices to be heard. The NWSLPA announced eight demands that read as first steps towards, in their words, “a league that deserves the players in it.”

This is the players’ moment because they’ve bravely claimed it, but it’s also plain that no one else in a position to turn this moment into the needed change would do so without the players demanding it. Those privileged to be the stewards of this league have collectively failed — in some cases, they’re literally the wrongdoers — as have the structures put in place to allow the league and its players to prosper. No one else in a position to make NWSL what it could be is actually doing that work, so the players have stepped up in what I’d argue is the critical moment in this league’s history.

What the players have known, and what they have been trying to tell us for so long only for it to be brushed off, is that NWSL can’t regard simply existing as the same as succeeding as a league. That has always been the framing: just keeping the lights on for another season is a victory, and whatever that takes is worth it. Unsafe conditions? Impossibly low pay? Abusive and/or unqualified coaches and higher-ups? Look, don’t rock the boat, players are told, or your contract will be torn up.

That’s not good enough. It never has been. NWSL may still be afloat, but it’s only because players have been willing to endure so much to keep it going. That can’t be how this works any longer. “The league is the players” is a phrase the NWSLPA is using, and rightly so. What needs to happen now is that the apparatus surrounding those players is not one that allows the horrific abuse and mistreatment that we’ve heard about over the last two months. A structure that gives the players — which is to say, the league — a platform to actually thrive. To be safe, to be treated with dignity. To have their clubs run by people whose objective is something other than a chance to control women and be lauded for doing so.

This moment is a dividing line, as my friend and colleague Claire Watkins said recently. From this point on, NWSL cannot be a league that talks about its players without actually acting on their behalf. Sinead Farrelly has talked about giving her pain, and the pain suffered by Mana Shim, and Kaiya McCullough, and the unnamed Spirit players who detailed abuse, a purpose. The players used this game to demand that, and it is the only way forward.

The owners need to view the current CBA negotiations not as a battle or a conflict, but rather a chance to collaborate with the players — the greatest asset this league has! — and create a new path forward. They owe it to them, and it’s also the only way for them to create a league that is actually a success.

From the players themselves

We try to provide context in these reaction pieces, but with hearing players and amplifying their voices so important right now, it we’d be remiss if we didn’t do that here. With that in mind, here is the full transcription of what Tori Huster and Andi Sullivan said to media after the game.

Questions have been lightly edited for clarity’s sake, but answers from the players are presented verbatim.

Hi Andi, Hi Tori, thank you for speaking with us tonight. We know what happened at the club under Richie, and relating to that your call yesterday on Steve Baldwin to sell his stake in the club. When it comes to the systemic abuse going on around the league — it’s been problem at seemingly half of the league’s clubs, possibly more — are there other issues at the Spirit that you as a team want to address publicly at this point?

Tori Huster: At this point, I’m not sure there’s really anything we want to address. I think what we’d really like to do is stand in solidarity with Mana and Sinead tonight. What they did was some of the bravest things I’ve ever seen. They went through a lot and we are happy to support them. Honestly, all of our love to them. They helped, you know, whether they’re the catalyst to the change that’s needed in this league or not, we are on our way to that change. And we are...we’re trying to take this league back and push it in the right direction.

Just wondering if either of you could walk us through what the player dialogue was prior to tonight in terms of planning what kind of solidarity you would show?

TH: I think all across the league, we were having conversations as teams. You know, I’m sure there were multiple conversations being had in small groups. The PA had extensive conversations, I can promise you that. I’m not sure, in any of my free time, I was off the phone. We had a lot of different ideas. A lot of people contributed to what you saw tonight, and what you will continue to see in games today. I honestly don’t know when the other kickoffs were, but we came to conclusion that we really wanted to, again, honor Mana, honor Sinead, and...

Andi Sullivan: And others.

TH: Yeah, and others. And it was not something that was easy to come to. But it was easy to do, and stand there together.

In your statement you were pretty clear that you called on Steve Baldwin to sell the team to Michele Kang. She was here tonight, she’s been around the team frequently. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what she’s done to earn your respect and trust, and earn that vote of approval from you guys.

TH: Um...we’d really like to keep the focus on the solidarity throughout the league today. I think that’s really important, to keep that focus. As we move forward, we’ll be better equipped to answer those questions. We’re happy she was here tonight. But yeah, I would really like to keep the focus elsewhere tonight. Thanks.

How did you feel to actually be playing today? After everything has gone on the past week, and then you have Carli Lloyd being honored today. So what were the emotions like, to just be out there and playing a game?

AS: It was...hard (laughs). It’s been an extremely emotional however many days, on top of however many weeks, on top of however many years. It feels like that has compounded and like, taking a big toll on a lot of us. So it’s been we’ve had a lot of conversations as players about terrible we feel for each other. And I’ve never felt — especially tonight when we stopped and gathered together — I’ve never felt so connected to every single player in the league, current and former. And that, you know, their pain, it’s...I think Sinead said an interview, like, I if they’ve gone through pain, I want to give that pain purpose, and change it for the future. So it was in a way, you know, really tiring, really emotional, but also incredible to get to show that support through what we love. And we want everyone who loves this game to be safe and be able to enjoy it like we can sometimes.

With the thought of the league wide solidarity, not just here, but in all the games going on, how has the league reacted to what you as players have been asking of them?

TH: I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. Because I’m not sure we’ve received good answers to things that we think are very basic standards at this moment in time. It is my understanding that a number of things that we’d like to see immediately changed went out at kickoff. We’ll see what happens. I really hope that we get some of those things answered and in place quickly.