New fund will help NWSL players cover living expenses, mental health services

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The NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) announced on Wednesday that it is launching a new emergency fund.

Officially known as the “Support the Players National Emergency Trust (NET),” the fund will assist current and former women’s professional soccer players “who cannot afford basic living expenses or the additional costs that become barriers to accessing critical mental health services.”

Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSLPA, said the idea for the fund originated this past summer after the PA launched its ‘No More Side Hustles’ campaign.

“Hearing the basic living expenses that our players were struggling to meet… we had our labor council take a look at how to draft an emergency charitable fund,” Burke explained.

The necessity of the fund only became more apparent to Burke as the 2021 NWSL season progressed. Between July and November, five male NWSL coaches were either fired or forced to resign as a result of non-soccer reasons, including alleged sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, racist remarks, and perpetuating a toxic work culture. Throughout all of this, the NWSLPA has been attempting to negotiate the league’s first ever collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

“I can think of no greater example of an emergency in the sport of soccer than what players experienced this season,” Burke said. “We have 250 NWSL players – give or take – who just went through a season like no other. We want to remove costs as a barrier to any player accessing the help and support that they need.”

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And it is clear fans are interested in helping.

After former NWSL player Mana Shim came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against longtime league coach Paul Riley in a story reported by The Athletic, she says people started reaching out, asking how to help.

“They were so concerned and they wanted to help the players,” Shim explained on the latest episode of Full Time with Meg Linehan. “And I didn’t have a good answer.”

Burke and Shim had a chance to talk through their ideas in-person at the 2021 NWSL Championship in Louisville.

“It all came together in this really awesome, synergistic moment,” Burke said of the fund’s launch.

The Support the Players NET will serve both current and former professional women’s soccer players. And not just former NWSL players.

Earlier this year, the NWSLPA revised its membership guidelines so that former players of the WUSA and WPS – the first two women’s professional soccer leagues in the United States – are eligible to join the current PA.

“We had a union back in the WUSA days,” Burke explained. “If the business had not gone under – and then re-emerged – all of those players who were members of those unions would be members of this [players association].”

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While players will be able to request funds for any need – from a flight to attend a family member’s funeral to moving expenses that result from an unexpected cross-country trade – one of the priorities is to help players who need assistance paying for mental health treatment that isn’t covered by the league’s health insurance plan.

“This fund can help defray that cost,” Burke said. “And help them access the help they need, not the help they can afford.”

Grants will be allocated by four trustees: Tracy Deforge, Donna Cohen, Stacey Enos, and Kelsey Davis. In addition to twice-monthly meetings to review applications, the trustees will also monitor applications as they are submitted in order to assist players with time-sensitive needs.

“Those are the circumstances that hurt the most,” Deforge said in a phone interview. “Those things that come up that are truly unexpected.”

“The marching orders we’ve given to the trustees is to be very generous with these funds,” said Burke. “These are not funds that have strings attached… Players know what they need.”

Burke says the philosophy of trusting players is central to the NWSLPA’s role as a labor union and extends beyond the newly announced fund.

“Players know what’s wrong in our sport and what systems have failed,” she said. “Player voices and perspectives have been ignored for far too long and we’re changing that.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

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