‘Non-fraternization’ policy planned for 2023 NWSL season

The NWSL plans to implement a ‘non-fraternization policy’ before the 2023 season kicks off in March, the league told USA TODAY Sports. The policy change is a response to findings released Wednesday at the conclusion of a joint investigation launched by the league and players association into problems across the league. 

The report detailed more of the already well-publicized abuses and “widespread misconduct” throughout the league, including coaches making degrading sexual comments toward players. Over the last year, multiple players have come forward with traumatic tales of coaches who coerced them into sexual relationships.

Similar to the Yates report, released two months ago and spearheaded by former U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates, the NWSL joint investigation also revealed numerous instances of emotional abuse. 

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Policy changes recommended

One of the recommendations in Wednesday’s report was for the NWSL to clarify its policy prohibiting sexual and/or romantic relationships between players and people within positions of power, including coaches.

Kirsten Brierley, a spokeswoman for the NWSL, told USA TODAY Sports in an email, “the Joint Investigative Team raised important issues concerning relationships where power imbalances exist. While our current anti-harassment policy addresses this issue, the league intends to implement a new non-fraternization policy prior to the 2023 season that is responsive to the learnings from the Joint Investigative Report’s recommendations.’

But the league did not clarify how it will handle previously-established and ongoing relationships that would be considered an imbalance of power or are within the same organization. Portland Thorns star Crystal Dunn, for example, is married to Pierre Soubrier, the Thorns’ head athletic trainer. They met when both were with the Washington Spirit, and have been married since 2018.

Relationships within organizations not uncommon

The current NWSL policy, which is available online, focuses on bullying and harassment more than consensual relationships between players and those in positions of power within the league.

Other professional women’s leagues have more clear-cut rules in this realm: The WNBA, which is owned and operated by the NBA, has a policy prohibiting romantic relationships between players and basketball operations personnel.

It is not uncommon in women’s professional sports for athletes to date, and even marry, people within their organization, including coaches. Perennial WNBA All-Star Diana Taurasi, for example, is married to former Phoenix Mercury assistant Penny Taylor. The two met and started dating when both were playing for the Mercury, and in 2019, Taurasi played under Taylor. They’ve been married since 2017 and have two children. Taylor left coaching in July 2020.

They’re hardly the only high-profile example. 

In November, former USWNT standouts Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, both of whom married their former colleges coaches after graduating, told USA TODAY Sports they have a new understanding of power dynamics in relationships.

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“I didn’t understand the power imbalance inherently involved in these relationships until later in my career,’ Foudy said, while Chastain said she has “a newfound understanding of the power imbalance that occurs inherently in the work/play environment. Honestly, it is nothing I ever experienced personally.’

Foudy added she would not advise her daughter to take the same path because “I now understand the power imbalance and the dynamics that happen in so many of these relationships that aren’t healthy, as we’ve seen over and over again in so many different settings and work places.” 

Earlier this month, Portland Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson resigned shortly after it was revealed she was romantically involved with Portland defender Emily Menges. 

Though Wilkinson was cleared by the league of any wrongdoing from a conduct and ethical standpoint, she told The Athletic that, “Once you’ve lost the locker room, which I have, there’s no return.” She stepped down just weeks after leading Portland to the NWSL championship in her first season as head coach.

In New Jersey, former coach Christy Holly was effectively forced out in 2017 in part because of his romantic relationship with Christie Pearce Rampone, a defender for Sky Blue FC.

The joint investigation said Holly lost the locker room and created a toxic atmosphere during that time, and players complained to team officials about it. It also said former NWSL president Amanda Duffy “recalled ‘being confused’ about how to handle Holly’s relationship with Pearce Rampone.” 

Details about that toxic environment weren’t ever communicated to Racing Louisville, though, which hired Holly as head coach in 2020. One season later, in August 2021, Louisville fired Holly following allegations he sexually assaulted and harassed defender Erin Simon. 

Investigation outlines other areas for improvement

Other recommendations from Wednesday’s joint investigation included giving NWSL teams guidelines involving alcohol consumption at team events and appropriate locations for one-on-one meetings between staff and players.

The report also said coaches and players should not be allowed to live in the same team-provided housing.

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