NWSL was all the buzz last night, and sadly it wasn’t for what the league will be with the returning Olympians. The Washington Spirit have a controversy on their hands. Coach Richie Burke was “kicked upstairs” earlier in the week by the team, citing health reasons. However, according to the Washington Post, Burke was relieved of his coaching duties for allegedly being...well, I believe the technical term is “ a raging asshole.”
Some of the allegations against Burke made by ex-players are pretty shocking, and harrowing, though surprising wouldn’t be a word you would use.
Here’s some from Molly Hensley-Clancy’s Washington Post:
“I was 100 percent in a situation where I was being emotionally abused by Richie,” Kaiya McCullough said in an interview. “He created this environment where I knew I wasn’t playing as well because I was so, so scared to mess up and be yelled at. It crippled my performance, and it made me super anxious.”
I know you’re not going to believe this, but there were also accusations of racial slurs and insensitivity from Burke. Here’s that excerpt from the Post:
“There were other incidents when Burke was alleged to have been racially insensitive, McCullough recalled. She overheard Burke joking to a Black player who had been hit in the eye, “Black eyes matter,” a joke that another player also recalled. And in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, McCullough said, Burke made a joke as Spirit players posed for a photograph of themselves kneeling on the field, saying they should pose while kneeling on top of an inflatable white practice dummy.”
Real peach, this guy.
The oxygen-deprived will surely deride these accusations from players as an example of the weakness of women, but this kind of coaching has always been bullshit. Yelling and screaming and making a spectacle of yourself has never been coaching. It’s bullying. It flew unchecked when players didn’t have a platform, or their own agency, which is why you still see it in the college and high school ranks, where players are mostly powerless.
NWSL players are more toward the college end of the spectrum than pros, and they’re still working on their first CBA. Burke was clearly a bully, if the allegations are true, and must not have thought there would be any pushback for his actions.
Constant screaming and insulting doesn’t teach anyone anything. If anything, it just makes them afraid to fail or make mistakes, as McCullough described. That’s no way to play or live, especially in soccer which is a sport that lives on players taking chances and creating out of thin air instead of being so rigidly adherent to a system. You can’t get out on the edge if you can’t accept falling off of it from time to time. You’re not going to attempt line-splitting passes or dribbling through an opponent, the kinds of things that lead to chances and goals, if you’re terrified that any loss of possession is going to result in the hairdryer treatment.
Here’s more from the WaPo piece:
“The Post subsequently reached out to Burke and the Spirit, describing the former players’ allegations. Burke did not respond to a text message or phone call. The team said in a statement that it would put Burke on administrative leave pending an investigation under the National Women’s Soccer League’s anti-harassment policy. The investigation was confirmed by the NWSL.”
Spirit owner Steve Baldwin gave a statement to the Washington Post.
“On the heels of our announcement today that Coach Burke was resigning, a Washington Post reporter contacted the Spirit with allegations of mistreatment — verbal and emotional abuse leveled at players — by Coach Burke,” read Baldwin’s statement. “We take these allegations very seriously and are undertaking an immediate investigation. Burke has been suspended pending the investigation and is prohibited from contacting players and staff and our facilities. We, as a team, will not tolerate any situation for our players and staff that is less than professional. Our athletes, and all of those who support them, deserve the absolute best.”
The only way bullying coaches survive today is because too many people have the attitude of “that’s what I went through so you should, too.” No one bothers to examine if it actually works. There are still plenty of Crimson Tide fans who stroke it to video of Nick Saban yelling at some teenager, probably because some high school coach did the same to them. Yeah, Saban wins all the time, but Saban also can throw open the doors and let the nation’s best talent walk on through.
That doesn’t mean discipline isn’t occasionally needed. That doesn’t mean the occasional reminding of who’s in charge doesn’t come into play. But if you use them sparingly, they have the proper effect. Yelling all the time just makes for abusive noise.
Coaches should make their players brave. Making them feel small and fearful is the exact opposite. The Spirit will be better off moving on from Burke.