By Michael Lewis
Marla Messing has hit the ground running as the interim CEO of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Taking over the reins of a league that has been rocked by scandals, the new NWSL interim CEO Wednesday kicked off her first press conference by announcing the league had agreed in principle with the NWSL Players Association it will address all of the latter’s demands.
“I’m here to try to build a bridge to the next iteration of the NWSL,” Messing said in a Zoom press conference with the media.
Among its recent demands, the NWSLPA wanted every coach, general manager and representative on the board of governors to submit to the PA’s investigation into abusive conduct, the NWSL’s investigation be expanded to include to discover if the 12 clubs know of any abuse has occurred and whether the league office staff, NWSL club or a person position in power neglected to investigate concerns raised by players or employees.
“I couldn’t be more pleased about this news as it allows us collectively to move forward with the investigation in a collaborative manner,” said Messing, who headed the 1999 Women’s World Cup Organizing Committee.
“I am honored and humbled to step into this role at such a pivotal time in the league’s history. I am committed to achieving institutional change.”
Messing said Covington & Burling would continue its independent investigation to make recommendations for reforms.
She will have plenty on her plate.
The NWSL has been shaken to its core by allegations and accusations of sexual coercion of players by several head coaches and team owners that have turned their heads looking into these serious issues. The two big profile cases include former head coach Paul Riley, who was accused of the above-mentioned coercion by former Portland Thorn players and the way Richie Burke treated his players on the Washington Spirit. Riley, a long-time Long Island resident and once considered one of the most respected coaches in the games, since has resigned as coach of the North Carolina Courage, as has Burke with the Spirit.
The collaboration between the league and players association wouldn’t affect two other investigations, Messing said.
“Covington and Burling also will coordinate with U.S. Soccer’s investigation,” she added. “In terms of FIFA and any other investigations, candidly, we have not heard what their plans are in terms of timing. It’s going take some time for these investigations to be completed and to be completed in the right manner. I think it’s going to be three, six, nine, months. We don’t know exactly until they begin to uncover the facts.”
While the league and some teams have been hit by serious scandals and allegations, Messing said that fans should not waver in their support of the players.
“Our players deserve as much or more support from the fans today as they did a couple months ago,” she said. “I think our players are just incredibly deserving of the support they received from their fans. I hope the events, or the disclosure of the events that happened don’t diminish that at all. I think that would actually in the opposite direction of what the players really deserve and in need right now.”
After being one of the original executives of Major League Soccer in 1995, Messing forged her reputation as president and CEO of the 1999 World Cup, an event that put women’s soccer into another orbit in the United States and the rest of the world. As a result of the tournament’s success, the country’s first women’s professional league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, began in 2001.
Professional women’s soccer has endured a bumpy road in the USA. The WUSA lasted only three seasons and was followed by Women’s Professional Soccer in 2009, but that league went out of business after the 2011 season.
The NWSL is close to completing its ninth campaign. If the investigations continue in a timely manner, there could be a rebranding of the league as it will celebrate its 10th season in 2022. Messing stressed cleaning up the league was her top priority.
“We would love to do something to celebrate that,” she said. “That is a huge milestone for a women’s soccer league. So I think if we can address some of the really hot button issues that we have to address, with enough time to then prepare for a rebrand and a rollout of the rebrand, I would love to do that.”
Asked why she decided to tackle the issues and challenges facing the NWSL, teams and players, Messing replied, “I was part of an inflection point in the sport of women’s soccer. Since the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the growth in popularity of the game, certainly at the national team level has really been even beyond what I expected. And to see the various leagues, including the NWSL, but also the leagues around the world, really begin to invest in the sport of women’s soccer has been incredibly rewarding to me. So, when the events, or the disclosure of the events that happened recently came to light, I was very interested in stepping in to help. This is something I care deeply about and if I can help be a catalyst for change, that’s something that means a lot to me.”
Messing said that U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone reached out to her about taking a role with the NWSL. She added that she believed Cone contacted the NWSL executive committee.
As for staying on after the issues and problems have been resolved, Messing indicated that she probably won’t be.
“No, honestly, I want to be successful in what I’ve been asked to do,” she said. “That’s my focus. It’s not insignificant. So I’m focused on that, helping the league, build better relationships with the NWSL PA with U.S. women’s national team and BWPC [Black Women’s Player Collective]. I’m here to try to build a bridge to the next iteration of the NWSL.”