Wednesday, February 8, 2012

States of Suspension

Readers should already know that the WPS suspended the league for this upcoming season. (Some reports on the decision: Sports Illustrated/Associated Press; All White Kit; The Guardian.)

To say that the league has struggled would be an understatement. It's been plagued by the usual headaches of a nascent sports league - mismanagement, outsized ambition, financial troubles, finicky owners, fickle fans, crap media. Add to that the burdening of women's soccer with the unrealistic expectations that accompany women-centered enterprises: Because it's women's soccer - we perhaps expect that people might be more broad-minded and progressive. We all let our guard down as we approach the women's game. That's one of things many people like about it. (It feels less corrupt, less cynical.) And it can amplify our sense of betrayal.

Some people get involved with women's sports because they believe in its viability as both a communal space and as a sustainable business (note the word "sustainable," not "profitable"). Others, entitled by their wealth, enter into the sports world looking for something else to own. Owning a team becomes an occasion for swaggering and self-righteous posturing. Worse, because it's sports, many of these sorts of people are reluctant to think about the good practices that need to be established to make a team work, beyond winning games.

That attitude ignores the game's realities: the stakes here for individual players are very low. Most would make more money doing almost anything else - they'd be less exposed to injury, too. Because the pay is so low, it is important that the team provide basic forms of support for its athletes - and that the work environment be professional.

The conversation about the WPS's decision to suspend the season took an interesting turn recently when a player came forward with details regarding her experiences playing for magicJack - easily the league's most troublesome member. Ella Masar was involved in a players' dispute with magicJack ownership. The post World-Cup period was rough: star athletes were returning with the mandate to save their home league. Masar stood with the rank and file players who'd been subjected to irrational and inexcusable treatment from the team's ownership. MagicJack players like Masar got caught between a rock and a hard place, as they were made to feel like the league's survival depended on their silence regarding what they were put through.

[Read Masar's statement: No More Silence]

Athletes who stand up against abusive managerial practices are routinely isolated, even by teammates who are grateful to them for their intervention. Although players might agree that things are bad, that things need to change, the conflict brought about by the effort to do so is almost unbearably stressful for most people. The burden of that kind of conflict tends to fall squarely on the shoulders of the victim - even if people feel that the victim is doing what must be done in speaking out, they also tend to wish that the whole thing would just go away. And it's easier to banish or diminish a player than it is to speak out against (never mind get rid of) the team's owner or manager. This is true, in fact, in any work environment. (Or, frankly, any playground - in which the bullied and harassed kid is the one who becomes the pariah.)

Add to this the fragility of the entire situation: magicJack needed to stay in the league for the league to continue. The owner of the team explicitly held this over the players' heads - they had no right to complain because if they did, they were going to take out the whole league. They were going to ruin things for their teammates. It was blackmail, plain and simple.

I read that story and wondered what's the point of a pro-league if it's only sustainable with bullying like that? Is it really a pro-league if a team interferes with an injured player getting proper medical treatment? How is that professional?

Meanwhile, as I wade through the laments of US women's soccer fans, I wonder about the pervasive wish for a wealthy patron who might save the league: Ellen DeGeneres, Nike (because they have such a great record when it comes to labor issues?), AEG, whoever. Isn't this how Dan Borislow wound up owning magicJack in the first place? He came in like a white knight, promising to save the league with a great team, etc.

[See espnW timeline of Borislow's involvement; "Dan Borislow, once a savior, now a pariah as WPS suspends the league" from Sporting News.]

I am reminded of a turning point in my own professional life. At some point in my 30s, I realized that if I expected some parental figure to sweep in and sort out my problems and clear my obstacles for me, that expectation might be the very thing that was most in my way. Athletes know the truth of this in relation to their game - but do they in relation to their work off the field?

It takes some time to figure out what you can do to take control over your own working conditions - and a big part of that involves identifying the people around you who are allies and collaborators. It requires figuring out how your workplace operates, how to be a good citizen in relation to your co-workers. It requires knowing the law, and knowing how and when to use it.

It it requires being very suspicious of anyone who presents themselves as a one-person solution: in my humble experience, the more that person talks about what they are going to do to make things better, the more certain it is that this person is going to make things worse.

I don't mean to defend the WPS against Borislow, exactly. Nothing about the news stories that have been coming out suggest that Borislow has been good for the league. But it was the league's administration that brought Borislow into its fold.

Anyway, who knows what lies ahead for the WPS.

I do know, however, that I don't want to watch professional matches and wonder what kind of insane crap players had to endure from their management in order to take the field. That's what the World Cup and the Olympics are for.
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