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NWSL

Spirit Fans Are Going To Be Heard One Way Or Another

Two fans hold a sign reading "Sell the team, Steve" at the Washington Spirit game.
Kelsey McKinney/Defector

A relatively quiet fan protest against the NWSL’s Washington Spirit’s ownership was shut down, apparently by that same ownership, leading to a louder one.

The protest was a sign reading “Sell the Team, Steve” that fans erected in the supporter section of the stadium behind a goal during Sunday night’s game. Fans are protesting current Washington Spirit co-owner Steve Baldwin, who hired former head coach Richie Burke, who has been reassigned after the Washington Post reported on his alleged verbal abuse of players.

I was at the game because I have season tickets to the Washington Spirit with my friend, the Post‘s Molly Hensley-Clancy, whose reporting appears heavily in this story. Hensley-Clancy had seen on Twitter that there was a sign up, and we could just see the top of it two sections over from our seats. At halftime, we obtained more hot dogs, doused them in condiments, and I followed my friend like a puppy to go visit the sign.

The first reason for pause was that standing in the entryway to the supporter section was not only event staff, but a cop. The cop was standing just around the corner so that the fans could not see him from their seats. We walked past them toward the sign.

The supporters holding the sign were in the midst of being talked to by a woman with a lanyard who clearly worked for the team. “What’s going on?” I asked the guy a few rows down as I hastily opened the tape recorder app on my phone to shove into Hensley-Clancy’s hand. “She’s telling them they have to take the sign down,” he said. I shouted this to Hensley-Clancy, who relayed to the woman next to her that she was a reporter with the Post. The woman, clearly unhappy to see the two of us (both reporters holding hot dogs), promptly left.

The supporters with the sign, Angus Long and Douglas Reyes-Ceron, said that the request to take down the sign had come “from ownership.” When asked why they had complied with the request (which is not in violation of the NWSL Fan Code of Conduct), they explained that they understood that there are a lot of people who work for a team like the Spirit, and not all of them are at fault.

The game was beginning, so we returned to our seats. A few minutes into the second half, as the North Carolina Courage made a drive at the net, the sign popped back up. A staff member hurried up the stairs and asked for the sign to be taken down again. The fans complied, and the sign stayed down for the rest of the game.

The sign stayed down, but when the game (tied 0-0) entered the final three minutes of stoppage time, the whole supporter section began to chant “Sell The Team.” This is a version of protest slightly harder to shut down.

The protest is occurring because of a messy battle between two co-owners, Y. Michele Kang and CEO Steve Baldwin. The war for control of the team is a direct result of the reporting by Hensley-Clancy, who reported a couple of weeks ago that now-former coach Richie Burke is subject to an NWSL investigation over allegations that he verbally abused players. Here is a revealing quote from that story:

“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.

“He made me hate soccer,” McCullough said.

Baldwin hired Burke as head coach. At the time of Burke’s hire in 2018, SB Nation blog Black & Red United reported at the time, two former youth players had already come forward to say that Burke had been emotionally abusive to them.

More reporting by Hensley-Clancy and Steven Goff published this morning in the Post revealed that Baldwin has been actively resisting efforts to push him out. He sent an email to the NWSL leaders and other team owners accusing his co-owner of trying “to have me step aside in favor of her as CEO.” Kang, having been CCed on the email by Baldwin for some reason, responded to explain that Baldwin offered to sell his shares to her in April, but now (in the wake of the allegations) seems to have changed his mind. Spirit fans seem to have something to say about that.