One more American football game for Carli Lloyd.
The popular 39-year-old women’s national team veteran will play her final game in American uniform next Tuesday in Minnesota, in a so-called friendly against South Korea. The two teams played a scoreless draw in Kansas City on Thursday – a crowd of over 18,000 cheered Lloyd as she became a second-half substitute.
The celebration, however, comes at a tumultuous time.
The NWSL, the country’s top professional women’s football league, is still reeling from a scandal involving multiple coaches and suspected abusive behavior towards players.
And that has refocused attention on an all-too-familiar issue: Female athletes in all sports experience abuse and harassment.
Joy tempered by pain
On a recent October night in Portland, Oregon, the joy of a women’s professional football game between the hometown of Portland Thorns and visiting Houston Dash was tempered by pain.
“It’s been a really dark and heavy week,” Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said afterwards, “for everyone in the league.”
Klingenberg and all the other NWSL players who spoke to reporters that evening, after their games, declined to talk about what happened on the field. Instead, the conversations revolved around what had recently turned their league upside down – coaches who were fired for allegations of verbal abuse, sexual coercion and misconduct; team and league officials accused of downplaying the allegations.
For observers like Michelle Bartlett, professor of sports psychology at West Texas A&M University, the scandal came as no surprise.
“It has different details and different spins,” Bartlett said, “but in a lot of ways it’s just the same thing.”
Bartlett has been researching abuse and trauma in sports for about seven years, and there has been a lot to study.
Again and again and why?
Abuse scandals in gymnastics, swimming, taekwondo, speed skating – again and again and… why?
Former professional football player and now coach Rachel Wood believes the problems start young. Especially at the elite youth level, where those involved – coaches, athletes, parents, administrators – have all but accepted cycles of physical, mental and verbal abuse.
“So we normalize a grown man who yells at a kid and singles her out or humiliates her as an attempt at motivation,” Wood said, “And we think, well, you know, it’s kind of like that. always been, and that’s how you’re going to realize your potential. And so what ends up happening is we normalize that. We don’t even call it abuse. We call it coaching. “
The power imbalance is established at this young age, says Wood.
The coach becomes the supreme authority, the guardian of sporting success. The athlete follows and never questions. In particular, says Wood, young girls who are traditionally socialized so that “people are pleasing” and submissive.
Even when the abuse goes beyond screaming, as it was with Wood.
Try to survive
From his teenage years, Wood had a coach who turned it around – he was kind and supportive.
“He told me that he saw something special in me,” said Wood, “and that he wanted to train me. [expletive], you’ll never be nothing, “you say to yourself” wow! “It’s intoxicating. I can be trained by someone who isn’t scary.”
But the coach still used his strong position to prepare her.
“They build confidence,” said Wood, “they make you feel special. They make you think you can’t do it without them. A kiss on the lips when you get to practice.”
Wood said there had never been sex. There were inappropriate kisses and touches. She never spoke up because at the time she interpreted “stretching and manipulating my body” as sort of a fine-tuning of what she was trying to accomplish as an athlete. . She also didn’t complain back then because if she admitted it was something inappropriate happened and exposed it, she wouldn’t be able to get the training she needed to play at an elite level.
So Wood said she went into survival mode.
“It’s like, how can I survive this with a long term goal in mind,” she said. “And I was constantly looking to the future and just trying to survive the present.”
Coach as she wanted to be coached
Wood’s future would include two NCAA women’s football titles at the University of North Carolina and several years playing in the NWSL for the Boston Breakers. And in 2019, she launched the Summit Soccer Academy outside of Boston.
“Hey Summit Squad and happy Monday with mindfulness! So we’re going to talk about this idea of control today.”
Wood works with players on and off the pitch – she posts “Conscious Monday” videos for her athletes, which range from elementary school students to professionals.
She and her personal trainer, as she writes on the Academy’s website, how she wanted to be coached – “with encouragement, information and belief.”
Initially, she wanted the Academy to be “by women, for women”. But Wood, now 31, says the older she gets, the more that perspective has changed. It now has three men on staff and three women.
“I coach boys and girls,” said Wood, “but mostly these girls, what I want them to see is that they can be trained by a man and that man won’t yell at you. . He will not take advantage of you. He will not cross personal boundaries. He will not follow you on social media. We have a very strict policy on social media and texting due to the ease with which these children are now available. “
Wood recognizes that a lot has to happen before the ideal environment she is trying to create becomes a reality in sports.
She and other reformers agree there needs to be better regulation in the highly unregulated coaching profession. There needs to be a more effective, robust, comprehensive and responsive abuse reporting system than what currently exists. And more good people need to be in positions of power. Women and men who will hold individuals, teams and organizations accountable.
Professor Bartlett says the power imbalance between athletes and coaches must also change. Especially at this level of youth where most of the problems start.
Parents, Bartlett says, can play a huge role in empowering coaches, who many parents believe hold the key to their child’s success.
“We are even seeing parents allowing coaches to be violent towards their children, verbally abusive,” Bartlett said. “Clear as day on the sports fields, where parents will overtake and their child will come off the field and [the parents] say “why didn’t you listen to the coach? The coach told you to do this. Why did you drive the trainer crazy? Instead of saying “hey, it was really inappropriate that the coach spoke to you that way”. Where we have parents who somehow perpetuate [the problem] and give coaches even more power to keep doing what they are doing. “
As possible fixes are released, a real-time change experience is underway.
Energized by a possible change, but still suspicious
NWSL teams are gearing up for next month’s playoffs – at the same time, work to fix the league’s issues continues.
The players’ union, the NWSLPA, says it and the league are making progress in resolving a list of demands made by players after the abuse scandal erupted. The requests include full and broad investigations into the allegations of coaching abuse and the league’s handling of those allegations.
The last of the eight requests was for players to have a say in the selection of a new full-time NWSL commissioner, replacing Lisa Baird, who resigned amid the scandal.
In an email to NPR, NWSLPA Executive Director Meghann Burke said the NWSL “has agreed to fully comply with our 8e request, which means that players will have the opportunity to meet the candidate commissioners and will have a meaningful opportunity to be heard. “
Players talk about having a voice, having power, having the financial resources to protect themselves – which means better wages.
Many are energized, but still wary of a league which they say has downplayed and even ignored years of player abuse.
“I know there are a lot of things that need to change,” said Alex Morgan, a star of the U.S. National Team and a member of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride, “but we need to start building that trust and at this point, it’s just not there yet. “
Yet Rachel Wood says the movement NWSL players are creating gives people the courage to come forward and shine the spotlight on the abuse.
There’s a long way to go, she says, but the culture is changing. And move, she hopes, to a time when those who have suffered in silence will no longer have to do so.