2021 NWSL Timeline: Five male coaches ousted due to misconduct, abuse allegations

2021 NWSL timeline: Portland Timbers fans set off red smoke in support of the NWSL womens soccer players as their ongoing protest over the sexual harassment scandal
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During 2021, five of the NWSL’s 10 teams have seen male head coaches 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. A sixth team – NJ/NY Gotham FC – terminated its general manager.

Players have also condemned racism in the NWSL, a league where the majority of coaches, owners, and executives are white men.

The NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) – which is currently attempting to negotiate the league’s first ever collective bargaining agreement – has demanded an end to “systemic abuse plaguing the NWSL.”

To help unpack how the NWSL reached this moment of reckoning – and to highlight the in-depth reporting that brought these league-wide issues to light – here is a timeline of key off-the-field moments from the 2021 NWSL season. While this timeline focuses on 2021, the issues exposed in recent months were built on a foundation years in the making.


NWSL introduces anti-harassment policy

April 2021: The NWSL created its first anti-harassment policy. The very first line of the policy states the NWSL’s commitment to “creating and maintaining a safe and respectful work environment that is free from all forms of harassment (including sexual harassment) and discrimination.”

As the Athletic‘s Meg Linehan would later report, 240 players – organized by Alex Morgan – had sent then-NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird a letter in March 2021 demanding “nine specific elements to ensure safe and inclusive workplaces, including multiple avenues to submit complaints and assurances that the league would protect any player from retaliation.” The league’s new anti-harassment policy was established as a result of these demands.

After the new anti-harassment policy was introduced, former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim reached out to Baird to request a new investigation into North Carolina head coach Paul Riley‘s behavior. Their request was denied (more below).


NWSL player Sarah Gorden details racial profiling

April 10, 2021: Chicago Red Stars player Sarah Gorden posted on Twitter that she and her boyfriend were racially profiled after an April 9th game against the Houston Dash.

“My boyfriend came to our game against the Houston Dash. After the game he came down the steps to talk to me. We were immediately [before he was close to me] followed by security and told he would be arrested if he came close,” Gorden tweeted. “At first I didn’t realize this was a racial issue until I saw white Houston Dash players surrounding the stadium talking closely to their family and we were the only ones targeted,” Gorden continued.

Later in the day, the Houston Dash issued a statement that – rather than addressing Gorden’s claim of racial profiling – highlighted the violation of COVID-19 protocols. “[W]e would like to assure [Gorden] and the Red Stars organization that our staff was entirely focused on COVID safety,” the initial statement read.

April 12, 2021: The Houston Dash published a second statement, which noted that the “initial statement was off the mark” and apologized to Gorden. The second statement – which did not directly acknowledge Gorden’s claim of racial profiling – went on to say that the club was cooperating with the league’s formal investigation.

April 13, 2021: The NWSL officially announced an investigation “under its anti-discrimination policy” to look into Gorden’s allegations. According to the league, the investigation began on April 10, a day after the incident.

Also on April 13: The NWSL announced multiple decisions made by its disciplinary committee. Included in the list are fines for NJ/NY Gotham City and the Chicago Red Stars for “violation of a league directive.”

While the NWSL did not specify the reason for the fines, multiple reports indicated that they were the result of Red Stars co-owner Sarah Spain and then-Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue expressing their support for Gorden publicly on Twitter after the league had asked team staff members to refrain commenting on the incident.

May 4, 2021: The NWSL announced that, following its investigation into Gorden’s claims, no action would be taken against the Houston Dash. “Following multiple interviews with witnesses and a review of the venue security footage, the investigation was closed,” the league said in a statement.

The lack of transparency in the league’s announcement fueled further outrage from NWSL fans, As reporter Steph Yang pointed out in this All for XI story, the league has a history of failing to investigate racist incidents.

“This is another brick in the wall of noncommunication from NWSL,” Yang wrote. “Allowances must be made for confidentiality and sensitivity, certainly. But when fans immediately and consistently react with outright skepticism to league statements, that’s a signal that NWSL has a communication problem. When it comes to issues of racism, harassment, player protection, and safety protocols, ambiguity is nobody’s friend.”


Farid Benstiti resigns as OL Reign head coach

July 2, 2021: OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti resigned.

“We are appreciative of Farid’s many contributions to the club over the past 18 months and wish him the best in all his future endeavors,” OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said in a statement released by the club. “We have great respect for Farid’s talents and all he brought to the organization, but in our recent conversations there was a collective agreement that new leadership was required to achieve the performances and results needed to satisfy our ambitions.”

Three months later, the Washington Post would report new details surrounding Benstiti’s departure (see below).


NJ/NY Gotham FC terminates general manager Alyse LaHue

July 16, 2021: NJ/NY Gotham FC announced that it had fired general manager Alyse LaHue on July 9th. According to the team’s statement, the decision was made “based on the results of a league investigation into a complaint of violation of league policy.”

A report published by the Athletic said the investigation was related to the league’s new anti-harassment policy. “Following a complaint, the league conducted an investigation and shared the findings of that investigation with Gotham FC,” an NWSL spokesperson told the Athletic. “Those findings will remain confidential and the league will not comment further on individual club personnel matters.”

LaHue has denied the allegations.


Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke steps down due to “health concerns”

August 10, 2021: The Washington Spirit announced that Richie Burke was stepping down from his head coaching duties and would been reassigned to the Spirit front office.

“Yesterday Richie advised me of some health concerns and we mutually agreed that it was in the best interests of him and of the club for him to step down as our coach. Once Richie’s health improves, he will join the sporting operations front office staff,” Larry Best, the Spirit’s President of Sporting Operations, said in a statement. (While this statement has since been deleted from the Spirit’s website, it can still be viewed here.)

August 11, 2021: One day Burke was allowed to step down, Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post published a story in which former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough alleged that Burke’s racist language and verbal and emotional abuse caused her to leave the team. According to the Washington Post‘s report, McCullough was one of at least four players to leave the Spirit in the last two years due to Burke’s treatment.

“I was 100 percent in a situation where I was being emotionally abused by Richie,” McCullough told the Washington Post. “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.”

After Hensley-Clancy’s report was published, the Spirit suspended Burke, pending an investigation.

Mid-August: The Washington Spirit announced multiple decisions – from signing IntelliBridge as a jersey sponsor to hiring UNC women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance as a new advisor – that resulted in fan outrage. A more in-depth timeline of the Spirit’s history – compiled by the Athletic – can be found here.

August 30, 2021: In a story for the Washington Post, Molly Hensley-Clancy and Steven Goff reported on an ongoing power struggle between the Washington Spirit co-owners Steve Baldwin and Y. Michele Kang.


Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly terminated “for cause”

August 31, 2021: Racing Louisville FC – an expansion team that began playing in the NWSL in 2021 – announced that head coach Christy Holly‘s contract had been terminated “for cause.”


Washington Spirit power struggle ramps up, head coach Richie Burke fired

September 2, 2021: The Washington Spirit hired Ben Olsen – a former D.C. United Player with no prior experience in women’s soccer – to serve as president of team operations. The Spirit press release included comments from co-owners Steve Baldwin, Bill Lynch, and investor Devin Talbott, but – notably – not Y. Michele Kang.

September 4, 2021: The Washington Spirit’s game against the Portland Thorns was postponed due to multiple COVID-19 cases within the Spirit.

A D.C. sports radio host Chris Russell, who doesn’t typically report on the NWSL but had hosted Baldwin on his podcast earlier in the year, posted on Twitter that Kang was under investigation due to allegations related to the league’s new anti-harassment policy. Russell also tweeted that Kang – who is Asian American – had held a “dumpling making party” that had led to the COVID outbreak on the team. This portrayal was called out as racist and later debunked by the Equalizer, which reported that the team’s outbreak began after one of the team’s many unvaccinated players travelled out of market and then failed to properly isolate upon her return.

Also on September 4: Meg Linehan of the Athletic reported that Larry Best filed an anti-harassment complaint concerning Spirit co-owner Y. Michele Kang.

September 22, 2021: Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post reported that the NWSL’s investigation into the Washington Spirit had “widened to include allegations of a toxic work culture for female employees.” According to the Hensley-Clancy’s story, the culture was especially toxic for women of color.

September 28, 2021: Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke – who had previously been allowed to step down due to “health concerns” – was fired following an investigation that the NWSL commissioned.

“After considering the substance of the report, and taking into account prior actions of the Spirit, the NWSL’s board of governors has determined that the Spirit and its ownership have failed to act in the best interests of the League,” the NWSL said in a statement. “The board has further concluded that representatives for the Washington Spirit will not be permitted to participate in League governance matters, effective immediately, and has initiated a process pursuant to which Washington Soccer Properties, LLC, must respond to the violation notice issued by the board within 14 days.”

While full details of the investigation were not made public, Hensley-Clancy reported that “Baldwin, Burke and president of sporting operations Larry Best had created a culture in the club that prevented multiple players and employees from speaking up.”

The Post‘s report continued: “Investigators also heard allegations that Baldwin hired unqualified friends for jobs at the club and that multiple male employees made misogynistic comments in the presence of female colleagues, those people said. Multiple people also raised concerns to investigators that Baldwin had “rage traded” multiple Spirit players whom he perceived to have defied him or been disloyal, two people briefed on the investigation said.”


Courage head coach Paul Riley accused of sexual coercion and emotional abuse 

September 30, 2021: The Athletic‘s Meg Linehan published a report in which former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim accused North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and emotional abuse.

Riley – who denied the allegations to the Athletic – was fired hours later.

The Athletic’s report detailed how Shim filed a complaint with the Portland Thorns (where Riley was then head coach) in September 2015, which was a factor in Riley’s contract not being renewed. That said, when Riley was let go, the Thorns issued a statement thanking him for “his services to the club.”

According to the Athletic, the Thorns’ investigation into Riley’s behavior was shared with the NWSL, but Riley was hired by a new team – the now-defunct Western New York Flash – five months later. The North Carolina Courage was founded in 2017 after the owner acquired the Flash’s rights, and Riley moved to North Carolina to lead the team.

After the NWSL introduced its first anti-harassment policy earlier this year, Farrelly and Shim contacted the NWSL to request a new investigation into Riley’s behavior. Both players were told by NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird that the 2015 complaint was “investigated to conclusion.”

After Baird issued a statement in which she said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the allegations, USWNT star and Orlando Pride player Alex Morgan posted screenshots of the April 2021 email exchange in which Farrelly reported “extremely inappropriate conduct by Mr. Riley” in a letter to Baird.

Also on September 30: In response to the allegations against Riley, the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) issued a statement, calling on the NWSL to take action and listing three specific demands. “The NWSL has failed us. We are taking our power back,” the statement read.

Individual players also called for change. “Men, protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN. Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll,” Megan Rapinoe wrote on Twitter.


NWSL fallout continues

October 1, 2021: The NWSL – following calls from the Players Association – announced that the games scheduled for October 2 and 3 had been postponed.

Also on October 1: FIFA and U.S. Soccer announced that they were opening investigations into the allegations against Riley.

By the end of the day, Lisa Baird had resigned as NWSL commissioner.


New details emerge about Benstiti’s resignation

October 2, 2021: Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post reported new details surrounding the departure of former OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti, who had resigned from his role in early July.

According to Hensley-Clancy, “Benstiti had been the subject of a formal complaint of verbal abuse made by a player, two sources with knowledge of the situation told The Post, after the French coach allegedly made inappropriate comments to players regarding their fitness and nutrition.”

Hensley-Clancy also reported that OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore – who had publicly praised Benstiti’s contributions to the club in early July – had requested Benstiti’s resignation after being told of the inappropriate comments. “Predmore said the team investigated that allegation and requested Benstiti’s resignation, and he said he found out about the formal complaint to the NWSL only after doing so,” Hensley-Clancy wrote.

Back in March, USWNT member and current Portland Thorns player Lindsey Horan discussed her time under Benstiti at Paris Saint-Germain in an appearance on Butterfly Road, a podcast hosted by North Carolina Courage player Cari Roccaro. In the episode, Horan detailed how the team’s coaching staff created an unhealthy environment that shamed players for how much they weighed and forced athletes onto diets.

According to Hensley-Clancy, the OL Reign had “instituted a zero-tolerance policy” with Bensistiti after learning of Horan’s allegations.


NWSL announces new executive committee

October 3, 2021: The NWSL announced the formation of a three-woman executive committee to oversee the league’s front office operations. The committee includes Amanda Duffy (Orlando Pride), Angie Long (Kansas City), and Sophie Sauvage (OL Reign).


Washington Spirit players call for Steve Baldwin to sell the team

October 5, 2021: In a statement posted on the Washington Spirit’s Twitter account, Steve Baldwin said he was resigning as CEO and managing partner, and handing “full authority over all club operations” to Ben Olsen. However, Baldwin’s statement did not indicate whether he would be selling his stake of the club.

Later on October 5: Players on the Washington Spirit respond to Baldwin’s statement, requesting that he sell his stake to co-owner Y. Michele Kang.

“When we asked you to step aside, step back from management, we clearly meant you should not retain any management control,” the players’ statement read. “We are sure you understood that.”

The statement continued: “Let us be clear. The person we trust is Michele. She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens. She believes that this can be a profitable business and you have always said you intended to hand the team over to female ownership. That moment is now.”

The Spirit players’ statement also called out Baldwin’s decision to leave Olsen in charge given that Olsen “has virtually no experience in the role you left to him.”


NWSL players continue calls for change, systemic reform

October 6, 2021: The NWSL returns to competition. Six minutes into each of the night’s three games, players paused and gathered at the center of each field. The NWSL Players Association released a statement saying that the moment of solidarity was “in honor of the 6 years it took for Mana, Sinead, and all those who fought for too long to be heard.”

As part of the statement, the NWSLPA listed eight demands, including calling on every NWSL coach, general manager, board of governors representative, and owner to “voluntarily submit to the Players Association’s independent investigation into abusive conduct.”

Also on October 6: Players on the Portland Thorns issued a joint statement on social media demanding that the team’s general manager, Gavin Wilkinson, be placed on administrative leave until an investigation concludes.

Within an hour, the Portland Thorns issued a statement that Wilkinson was on administrative leave “from Thorns duties” but left the door open for Wilkinson to continue working with the Timbers.

October 8, 2021: Former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough published an opinion piece for the Washington Post in which she further details her experience with the league’s “toxic culture.”

“The men who made up so much of team leadership used fear and bullying to maintain control of the club. Racist and degrading nicknames emanated from the front office. My coach emotionally abused me,” McCullough wrote.

She continued: “I have been playing soccer for 18 years, and I have never experienced a demand for total upheaval like this one. It’s an overwhelmingly positive thing, but it took trauma and suffering to get here. Only real, far-reaching change dictated by players themselves can honor that.”


2021 NWSL championship game relocated

October 13, 2021: The NWSL and NWSLPA – in a joint statement – announced that the 2021 NWSL championship game scheduled for November 20, 2021, would be moved from Portland to Louisville.

When Portland was announced as host earlier this year, players drew issue with the early 9am start time (the result of a TV window on CBS).

“Portland understood the importance of listening to the players, and Louisville stepped up to host. Players embraced the opportunity to kickoff at noon local time in a fantastic venue,” the joint statement read.

The statement also said the league and Players Association had “worked to come to an agreement on several of the demands set forth by the PA last week.” The two parties agreed to a five-day extension to reach an outcome on the remaining items.


Marla Messing named interim CEO of NWSL

October 18, 2021: Marla Messing was appointed as interim CEO of the NWSL. According to the league’s announcement, “Messing will oversee the day-to-day operations and work in close coordination with the board of governors to execute on key initiatives that will promote actionable, sustainable change and measurable progress across the league.”


Report: Washington Spirit training at a high school

October 25, 2021: The Athletic reported that the Washington Spirit have been training at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Virginia, following a dispute between Spirit ownership and D.C. United. Read the full report here.


NWSL agrees to NWSLPA demands

October 29, 2021: The NWSLPA announced that the NWSL had agreed to the eight demands issued by the Players Association in the wake of the sexual coercion allegations against former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley. “Each of these demands is seen by the players as one step closer to the goal of taking our league back,” NWSLPA president Tori Huster said in a statement.


Washington Spirit struggle continues

October 30, 2021: Larry Best, the Washington Spirit’s President of Sporting Operations, resigned from the club. An independent investigation into the Spirit earlier this year found Best had violated the NWSL’s safe workplace and anti-harassment policies.

November 3, 2021: After co-owner Steve Baldwin announced his intent to sell his stake in the team, the Athletic’s Pablo Maurer and Steph Yang reported that the Washington Spirit was in exclusive sale negotiations with The St. James, a sports and performance center in suburban D.C. According to the report, current Spirit co-owner Y. Michele Kang had submitted a proposal to buy out fellow investors at a valuation of $21 million, $5 million more than the valuation submitted by the St. James group.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: NWSL trades expose need for CBA, free agency


Fifth NWSL coach ousted: Rory Dames resigns hours before abuse allegations are published

November 20, 2021: The Washington Spirit (led by interim coach Kris Ward) defeated the Chicago Red Stars (coached by Rory Dames) 2-1 in extra time to win the 2021 NWSL championship.

November 22, 2021: At 12:54am ET, the Chicago Red Stars issued a press release announcing the resignation of head coach Rory Dames. Dames, who had been hired as Red Stars head coach in 2011 when the team was part of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, had been the NWSL’s longest tenured coach.

In the Red Stars’ statement, Dames said he was resigning in order to “[refocus] my attention to my family and future endeavors…” The press release also included a quote attributed to the Chicago Red Stars – instead of an owner or other team official – stating, “Under Rory’s leadership we have been a remarkably consistent and excellent club on the field.”

November 22, 2021: At 4:14pm ET, Washington Post reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy published a story in which seven players, including Christen Press, Jen Hoy, and Sam Johnson, alleged that Dames had been verbally and emotionally abusive as a coach.

According to the Post’s report, Press said she first spoke up about Dames in 2014 in a meeting with then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. As a member of the U.S. women’s national team, Press was employed by U.S. Soccer – not the NWSL – when she played for Dames/Chicago Red Stars from 2014-2017.

Press told Dames that she wanted to be traded in 2017, and the following year, she filed a formal complaint with U.S. Soccer, which resulted in an investigation. According to the Post’s report: “The federation took no apparent action, and it continued to pay national team players to play for Dames with the Red Stars. Former players, including Press, said they never heard another word from the federation.”

“For so many women in this league, you think you don’t have any worth,” Press told the Post. “And if you stand up and you say what you think is right or wrong, nobody cares.” Press also said she felt Dames created a power dynamic in which gender played a major role.

This story will continue to be updated.


ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: New fund will help NWSL players cover living expenses, mental health services

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Diana Flores looks to break down gender barriers with turn as AFC offensive coordinator in 2023 Pro Bowl

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Diana Flores admits she was surprised when she became a viral sensation last spring, courtesy of a 15-second slow-motion clip showcasing her evasive maneuvers and fancy footwork while leaving at least three defenders in the dirt during Mexico’s 2022 national collegiate flag football championship.

“I never expected someone to record that moment,” said Mexico City native Flores, who led her team – the Monterrey Tech Borregos – to their third consecutive national title as a senior last May. “I was just having fun. I was just playing the game I love and then days later to see that it was viral on the internet — it was crazy. But at the same time, it was exciting because I remember when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of flag football role models to follow. So now, for me to be a role model for many boys and girls that play my sport is something that really makes me happy and proud and also motivates me to keep getting better.”

Flores, who led the Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team to a gold medal at the 2022 World Games, will have the chance to promote her sport on one of the world’s biggest stages this weekend when she serves as the AFC offensive coordinator for the NFL’s 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday in Las Vegas.

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Flores will be joined by Peyton Manning as the AFC head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator. On the NFC side, U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback Vanita Krouch will serve as offensive coordinator, with Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as defensive coordinator.

“I think that this has been one of the best things in my life,” she recently told On Her Turf about her Pro Bowl appointment. “It is like a dream. I mean, I grew up watching football, watching the NFL, playing flag football. And now to be able to be part of all of this — it is bigger than my biggest dreams.”

Flores’ football dreams began as when she was just 8 years old. Her father — who played quarterback for the perennial football powerhouse Monterrey Tech program — took her to a practice and she fell in love with the sport. But as the time there were no teams for girls her age, so she played with girls twice her age and used it to her advantage, focusing on her own abilities and sharpening her skills. By age 14 she was playing NFL Flag in Mexico, where she was the only girl in the league, and at 15 she started playing NFL Flag in the U.S, where she finally played on an all-girls team.

ALSO FROM ON HER TURF: U.S. flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

“I remember when I started playing, I used to receive a lot of like comments, directly and indirectly from other people, like, ‘Why do you play that sport? That’s not a girls’ sport, that sport is for boys, you’re get injured, you’re going to get hurt, don’t play with boys, that’s too rude.’ And the list keeps going. But my mom and dad were so supportive. They always encouraged me not to listen to anybody, to just follow my passion.

“And I think thanks to them, I’ve always had this mentality that gender doesn’t matter. It just matters how passionate you are about your dreams, how hard you work for what you want to achieve. And that you will always demonstrate what you’re made for, depending on the hard work you do. So, I’ve lived through that [negativity], I have experienced that. And I think that it has been one of my biggest blessings to be able to experience — for myself — what sport can do and how gender barriers get broken when you follow your dreams and you connect with other people through your passion.”

At just 16 years old, Flores made Mexico’s national team, playing in the first of four Flag Football World Championships – so far. Last summer at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, the 24-year-old Flores led Mexico to a 6-0 record, which included two wins over the U.S. women, who took silver. In the gold medal game against the United States, she completed 20 of 28 pass attempts for 210 yards and four touchdowns in Mexico’s 39-6 victory. She finished the tournament with 23 touchdown passes, the third-most among women’s teams, and she was the only starting quarterback to beat USA’s star QB, Krouch, who is 19-1 in international tournament play.

All that international experience so early in her career has given Flores a wise-beyond-her-years approach to playing flag football, a sport where she was frequently the only female player on the field and often the only Latin American as well.

“When I first came to the U.S., it was a little shocking to notice that I was probably the only Latin American girl playing,” she recalls. “But I think that it was easy for me because I got all the support from my coaches and my teammates. And since a young age, I think that I started to realize that sometimes what you do is for something bigger than yourself. That’s why you have to always give your best, in any situation. Even at that young age, I understood that I was representing more than myself on the field, I was representing Latin American people, Latin American girls in a sport that [many people thought] was meant to be for boys.”

RELATED: NFL still pushing for Olympic flag football with a chance ahead

One door Flores hopes to help open is the one leading to the Olympics. Flag football is on the short list being considered for inclusion in Los Angeles in 2028 Los Angeles. As an ambassador for flag football for the NFL and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), she’s participated in talks with the International Olympic Committee, and just last month she was joined by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden in Mexico City where they joined forced to promote women’s empowerment and inclusion.

“I think for me, that experience is one of my top three,” she said of spending time with Biden. “I call them gifts from life, something that you didn’t expect it to happen, and somehow, one day, you’re right there in front of the First Lady. I admire her for what she does for boys and girls, for empowering woman and giving opportunities for everybody to achieve their dreams. So it was truly an honor to meet her, and also to be able to keep impacting my sport, not only on the field, but [off] the field, and have the opportunity keep inspiring others and keep impacting the world.”

As for what she hopes fans at the Pro Bowl and viewers at home take away from Sunday’s flag football showcase, Flores hopes they’ll see the characteristics that made her fall in love with flag in the first place: creativity, speed, agility, teamwork, passion and a lot of heart.

“I hope to show to all little girls and women that dreams come true, that nothing is impossible, to keep inspiring and opening opportunities and doors for women in sports, especially in the world of the NFL and football and flag football,” she says. “We’re going to make history, and I am so proud and happy for that. I’m really hoping that it is just the first step, not only for me, but for all the women that are coming after me.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Paula Moltzan talks first World Cup podium, being Mikaela Shiffrin’s teammate and unconventional path to the U.S. Ski Team

Flag football star Vanita Krouch ‘living the dream’ ahead of NFL Pro Bowl debut as NFC coordinator

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When Vanita Krouch got the news that she was named NFC offensive coordinator for the 2023 Pro Bowl Games, featuring the first-ever AFC vs. NFC Flag football games on Sunday, the U.S. Women’s National Flag Football team quarterback admits her jaw nearly hit the ground.

And then she realized something even more profound.

“For the longest time, thinking about the moment, everything, you’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is a dream come true. Is this really happening?’” said the 42-year-old Krouch, known as the “Tom Brady of flag football” with a 19-1 record as USA’s starting quarterback in international tournaments since 2018.

“But then I started thinking to myself: You know what? None of us grew up thinking of this as a dream to obtain. So really, it’s kind of reversed where I’m living a dream. I get to be a pioneer in this growth of flag football for all and inclusion for all, youth and adults, [women and men]. It’s such an inclusive sport, and I get to be a part of this growth and still actively play. It’s exciting. I’m literally living the dream. I’m very much like, ‘Guys, don’t pinch me. Let me keep sleeping.’”

Organized in partnership with RCX Sports, the NFL’s flag football operating partner, and the International Federation of American Football (IFAF), Sunday’s Pro Bowl event will feature three 7-on-7 AFC vs. NFC flag games. Each game will be 20 minutes in length (two halves) and played on a 50-yard field with 10-yard end zones. Krouch will be joined by Eli Manning as NFC head coach and DeMarcus Ware as NFC defensive coordinator. On the AFC side, Mexico Women’s National Flag Football quarterback Diana Flores will serve as offensive coordinator, with Peyton Manning as head coach and Ray Lewis as defensive coordinator.

But Krouch’s journey to the Pro Bowl stage began under the unlikeliest of circumstances and was inspired by her own family odyssey, which began in Cambodia during the horrific regime of the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. Krouch’s mother, Phonnary Krouch, fled the country with three young sons in tow, running by night and hiding by day to escape, finding safety initially at a refugee camp in the Philippines. That’s where she welcomed Vanita, in September 1980, and two months later the family made its way to the United States. Krouch’s father exited the picture upon their arrival in America, leaving Phonnary to raise four children alone.

“In a nutshell, my mom is an amazing woman,” said Krouch, who first found sports via an elementary school flyer advertising youth soccer in Carrollton, Texas. “On the journey, she had a lot of trials, tribulations, … and after our dad left us, it was just mom and four kids in this little one-bedroom apartment. So, it was a challenge. I’m just so amazed by her strength and will to never give up.”

She also credits her mom for standing up to then-stereotypical notions that Asian girls should not play sports.

“I’m just thankful, honestly, that my mom allowed me to break the Asian culture barriers of a woman playing sports because that’s not easy,” she said. “She faced a lot of backlash from the community. But she said, ‘Hey, my child’s making good grades. She’s healthy, she’s good. She’s staying off the streets. I don’t see a problem.’ And she just let me do it. I was just lucky to have a mom that let me spread my wings.”

Krouch also had a few mentors along the way. Her elementary school PE teacher, Toni Neibes, stepped in to pay for those initial soccer fees and continued her support as Krouch transitioned to basketball in the fourth grade. She fell in love with the sport and excelled at it as well, eventually earning a full scholarship to play college basketball at Southern Methodist University. She wears the No. 4 to this day in honor of Niebes, who wore the same number as a young athlete. She also credits her fourth-grade teacher, Judy Ward, as having a lasting impact after the teacher made a habit out of showing up for her youth basketball games.

She pays tribute to them both through her clothing line, 4Ward Apparel, which features ever-changing collections emblazoned with relevant slogans encouraging female empowerment, inclusion and her personal mantra of “paying it forward” – something she does with the line itself. Each month, Krouch donates a portion of the sales to individuals, families or organizations in need.

After graduating SMU in 2003, Krouch continued to play basketball in semi-pro and adult leagues, but she was still searching for something to satisfy her competitive drive. She and a former college teammate stumbled on flag football during a Google search for local Dallas-area activities, and the rest – as they say – is history.

“It was like I drank the Kool Aid and I never looked back,” she says of her start in flag in 2006. “It’s just like every game, every play is a new challenge, and it’s addictive for a competitor, so I just fell in love with flag. I actually think I’m way better at flag than I was at basketball.”

She moved into the quarterback position through some sly maneuvering by current USA Women’s Flag Football head coach Chris Lankford. They were playing together in a local tournament when he “tricked” her into the QB position, despite Krouch knowing “zero football language.”

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“One day I showed up for a tournament and I asked, ‘All right, guys, who’s our quarterback?’ And he says, ‘We’re looking at her,’” she remembers. They kept the plays simple, and her team made it to the playoffs that season. Krouch has been a QB ever since.

Krouch joined the national team in 2016 and was inducted into the National Flag and Touch Football Hall Fame that same year. Last year at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, a 41-year-old Krouch set a new mark as the oldest Flag football player, man or woman, in the games, and she ranked second among women with 25 touchdown passes at the tournament where USA won silver.

She aims to bring that expertise to the field at the Pro Bowl games, where she’s looking forward to seeing NFL players take on the flag football style type of plays. “Flag is a very finesse, quick game, a lot of footwork, and these guys can’t grab or hold, no downfield contact or downfield block or anything off the line,” she explains. “So it’s going to be exciting just to see skill for skill, footwork for footwork, defense to offense, and to see flag football language with those type of elite athletes.”

As for the biggest challenge, Krouch believes it will be crafting a concise playbook and language that puts everyone on the same page. “A challenge for me is getting a coach’s mindset,” she adds, “I have to actually come up with plays ahead of time and I don’t usually have premeditated plays in my head. I just read it so for me to tell Kirk Cousins or Geno Smith [what to do], it will be different, you know?”

But beyond the Pro Bowl, Krouch is excited that flag is being considered for inclusion as an exhibition sport in the 2028 Summer Olympics. While she’s keeping a hopeful eye on that development, she’s also working to shape the next generation of potential athletes as a physical education teacher at La Villita Elementary in Irving, Texas.

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“It’s an honor to be a role model – for other youth flag football players, for my students, both boys and girls,” says Krouch. “Then at my campus and in my community, it’s amazing to be able to break the barrier of like, ‘Asian women can’t do this.’ And then to be at my age, still doing this, I feel very lucky and blessed. …I think I still got some years in me.”

As for what she hopes viewers and fans walk away with after watching the Pro Bowl flag games this weekend, Krouch feels confident folks will walk away enlightened by the show.

“I just hope that they have fun with it,” says Krouch. “And for those who don’t know flag to be like, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing. Maybe that’s something I really can get my son or daughter into at a young age.’ So I just hope that they see that the sport is real – it’s not just something we play at recess. It’s a real thing now. I think they’ll see that the world loves it, the world can play it and is playing it.”

Be sure to check back with On Her Turf later this week when we catch up with AFC coordinator and Mexico Women’s National Flag Football Team quarterback Diana Flores.  

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