Soccer

Washington Spirit controversies explained: Everything to know about NWSL team’s tumultuous two months

On Wednesday morning, Washington Spirit co-owner Y. Michele Kang called for controlling owner Steve Baldwin to sell her the team. In a letter to investors she referenced the “toxic” club culture and promised reforms once she was in control.

The letter is the latest domino to fall in a six-week period the has seen the Washington Spirit organization endure multiple overlapping off-field crises. The Spirit have undergone the sudden departure of a manager, had multiple female front-office staff leave the team, a COVID-19 outbreak which saw the team forfeit two matches, and a public dispute within the ownership group. If all that seems like a lot to keep track of, well, it is. So, for clarity’s sake let’s take a look at a timeline of the Washington Spirit’s last handful of controversy-filled weeks.

What happened to the Washington Spirit?

Aug. 10: The Washington Spirit announce in a now-deleted press release that head coach Richie Burke was stepping down from his position due to health concerns.

Aug. 11: After the Washington Post releases a report on Burke with allegations of creating a toxic environment, verbal abuse, and racists comments, the the Spirit announce that an investigation around the allegations is underway. 

Aug. 19: Spirit announce a partnership with Intellibridge, a defense contractor for homeland security and law enforcement would be the front of jersey sponsor. The news is not received positively by core fanbase. 

Aug. 21: Washington Spirit and President of Business operations Lindsey Barenz reportedly part ways after participation in the ongoing investigation of Burke and after raising concerns over the recent IntelliBridge sponsorship.

August 29: The Rose Room Collective,  a supporter group for the Spirit and DC United that define themselves as a collective of intersectional POC soccer supporters — display a “Sell the team, Steve” banner at the Aug. 29 match against the North Carolina Courage. The Spirit request that Rose Room remove the banner.

The match was also service member appreciation night with distinguished guest retired Air Force general Michael Hayden, a choice which was once again not received well by Spirit fan base, due to Hayden’s history of having been accused of lying to Congress about the CIA’s use of torture.

Aug. 30: Additional reporting from the Washington Post describes a power struggle between owners Y. Michele Kang and Steve Baldwin and details an agreement for Baldwin to sell his shares to Kang (referenced in Monday’s letter from Kang). The report says Baldwin ultimately backed out in resistance to being pushed out.

Sept. 2: Washington Spirit hire former D.C. United player and head coach Ben Olsen as president of team operations. Olsen has no prior experience in women’s soccer and has ties to minority owner Devin Talbott and his firm Enlightenment Capital.

Sept. 4: The team’s match against the Portland Thorns is initially postponed due to four positive COVID-19 cases within the Spirit, with sources claiming there are up to eight unvaccinated players on the team.

Sept. 4: Additional speculation surrounding COVID-19 protocols on the Spirit surface after a local D.C. area sports radio host tweets that a dumpling-making party hosted by Kang is being investigated by the league as the reason for the outbreak. The Athletic later reports that Spirit CEO Larry Best filed the complaint about Kang to the league. 

Sept. 10: Former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough releases a podcast episode and video blog detailing toxic environments around the Washington Spirit.

Sept. 11: The Spirit forfeit a match against OL Reign thanks to a breach of medical protocol, with reports confirming that during the COVID-19 outbreak the team did not comply with protocols, including reports of a player traveling out of market and not quarantining after travel.

Sept. 23: The Washington Post confirms reporting that multiple women have left front-office positions and more female executives have resigned, with three of five female department heads leaving the team in the month of September.

Sept. 23: The official Spirit supporters group releases a statement detailing its displeasure at the current state of the club, and that it plans to scale back support. The group also calls for Baldwin to sell the team.

Sept. 24: The NWSL issues a one-game suspension to Spirit player Devon Kerr for “failure to follow team staff directives.” Kerr responds via social media to suspicions that connect her to recent COVID-19 outbreak at the club.

Sept. 26: The Washington Spirit finally return to regular season play after nearly a month-long absence and two forfeits. The team defeats Kansas City NWSL and remains in playoff position.

Sept. 27: Kang sends her letter calling for Baldwin to sell the team amid constant turmoil around the franchise. 

What comes next?

After constant negative headlines and investigations into the club, it was announced during a broadcast of a Washington Spirit game that investigations into the club have now concluded and that more information will be announced during the next week. 

The regular season for NWSL concludes Oct. 31, with playoffs beginning the first week of November. An expansion draft welcoming two new clubs into the league for 2022 will take place Dec. 16. The timeline for resolutions for the franchise is short, and at this point, necessary. The turmoil around the club has reached a boiling point within the organization and among what is considered the core fanbase of the team and league.



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