NWSL trades expose need for CBA, free agency

NWSL player Kristen Hamilton walks onto the field with the Kansas City Current, one month after being traded by the North Carolina Courage
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The NWSL has seen a flurry of trades ahead of the league’s upcoming expansion draft, including blockbuster deals featuring USWNT stars Sam Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, and Julie Ertz. 

Mewis, who was traded to Kansas City from North Carolina, said on Friday morning that she was “thrilled” to join her new team, while Dahlkemper, who is headed to San Diego, said last week that she is looking forward to helping build a new club from the ground up. Both USWNT players also indicated that they had a say in where they were traded.

But for players who aren’t national team stars – and even for some who are – that type of freedom is not the norm in the NWSL.

“Right now, we don’t have rights,” said Tori Huster, President of the NWSL Players Association. “The club might respect [a player’s] opinion on being traded and may choose [to listen], but overall, we don’t have that right.”

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Huster, who is helping lead the charge to create the NWSL’s first collective bargaining agreement (CBA), says giving players more control is a huge priority.

“If we had a CBA in place already, I would be curious what this expansion draft would have looked like,” Huster said. “These trades that are happening right now… Would they even be happening if we had a contract in place that made it more difficult for clubs to to move players?”

With NWSL coaching turnover, who is calling the shots?

The recent trades also raise an important question: with so many NWSL teams currently lacking a full technical staff, who is making these decisions?

During the 2021 season, nine of 10 NWSL teams saw their head coach depart – five of whom either resigned or were fired following allegations of abuse. Of those 10 teams, five head coaching positions are either currently vacant or are being filled by an interim individual.

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

With so much coach movement, Huster is concerned that there are even fewer safeguards for players.

“[There] may be only one or two people making these decisions when ideally it would be a deliberation amongst a larger staff,” she said.

“[Being] traded and going to a completely different city at any point, it can definitely be unsettling. I think, right now, players are probably experiencing that.”

The NWSL double whammy: low salaries combined with little freedom

While unexpected trades are a norm in pro sports, so too are lucrative salaries that help soften the blow and don’t make players think twice before hiring a moving company.

That’s not the case in the NWSL, where the minimum player salary is $22,000 and the 2021 season lasted nearly 10 months. While teams are responsible for proving players with housing, other cost of living expenses vary widely between markets.

“If you’re not going to pay us a lot of money – but you’re also able to move us at any time – that in no way benefits the player,” Huster said.

Kristen Hamilton experienced this first-hand in July when she was unexpectedly traded from the North Carolina Courage to Kansas City –  along with teammates Hailie Mace and Katelyn Rowland – in exchange for Amy Rodriguez.

After being asked to arrive at practice 10 minutes early, “I was told I was traded and that they wanted me at practice the next day in Kansas City,” Hamilton said. “I was shocked, to say the least.”

Hamilton packed a carry-on bag and flew out at 7am the next morning. Two days later, she returned to North Carolina for a game against her now former team – and only then was she able to fully pack up her belongings.

From figuring out if she could move her brand new king-size bed halfway across the country to transferring her gas and internet contracts, the little things quickly added up. “You have to do it all yourself because we’re not paid enough to hire people to do it for us,” she said.

While Hamilton gives Kansas City credit for making the transition easier, she knows not every NWSL club sets the same standard. “I think that’s one of the pitfalls of this league and not having a CBA in place to hold teams accountable.”

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In the NWSL, “free agency” has a layered meaning

In addition to having no control over being traded away from a team they like, there is also no process currently in place that allows NWSL players – no matter how many years they’ve played in the league – to solicit offers from other teams and decide where they want to continue their careers. (Unless they choose to go abroad.)

This right – known as “free agency” – is so commonly used in the sports world that it becomes easy to forget the meaning of the term: the ability for a person to act independently and make unrestricted choices.

That is especially relevant in the NWSL, where systemic abuse has been fueled by a culture of silence and longstanding power imbalances.

Hamilton believes the lack of free agency in the NWSL has contributed to these issues. “That can play a factor in players being in unhealthy or traumatic situations,” she said. “Ultimately, the teams, the clubs, the coaches have all the power.”

If Hamilton – who was drafted into the NWSL in 2014 – was a basketball player in the WNBA, she would have been eligible for free agency in her sixth season in the league. (The WNBPA’s landmark 2019 CBA has since lowered that bar to five seasons going forward.)

But in the NWSL, “I can be in this league for seven-plus years and not have a say in where I say in where I go or what I do,” Hamilton said. “I’m almost 30 years old and have almost no control over my career.”

While the Colorado native said she would like to continue playing for Kansas City, “There’s no real security for anybody.”

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC

Kaillie Humphries elevates another fresh U.S. face to podium status in two-woman bobsled World Cup

Kaillie Humphries of USA, Kaysha Love of USA in action at the 2 women's bobsleigh during Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
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PARK CITY, UTAH – Kaillie Humphries extended her podium streak on Saturday at the IBSF World Cup, where she and U.S. push athlete Jasmine Jones finished third in the two-woman bobsled.

The third-place finish in Park City marked the sixth podium for Humphries at the Park City track, which hosted the 2002 Olympics, and was Jones’ career-first World Cup podium in just her second World Cup start.

“This is our first race together, so really excited about that,” said the 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships titles. She earned her 29th career World Cup win on Friday in Park City in the women’s monobob.

“Definitely a work in progress. … The runs weren’t perfect, but I’m really happy with our starts, happy with our drives minus a few little mistakes. It’s a good starting point, and we’ll look to grow from here.”

Humphries and Jones finished with a combined, two-run time of 1:37.69, 0.32 behind winners Kim Kalicki and brakewoman Leonie Fiebig of Germany at 1:37.37. Fellow Germans Laura Nolte and Lena Neunecker were second at 0.23 back.

Kalicki and Fiebig broke a 16-year-old track record with their first run, laying down a time of 48.60 seconds and besting the time set by Americans Shauna Rohbock and Valerie Fleming – the 2006 Olympic silver medalists – in December 2006 (48.73). It also marked the second straight victory for Kalicki, who’s won five career World Cup titles including last week’s two-woman bobsled race in Whistler, Canada.

“I was hoping Kaillie would get [the record],” said Rohbock, who is now a U.S. team coach and was on hand to see her record fall. “That first run there, she had that little skid in the bottom, so that didn’t help, but Kailee’s always putting up a great performance. And Jasmine, another great brakewoman, so we’re really lucky that we have that depth.”

For Team USA, it marked the second straight week that a fresh face earned her first podium finish while competing with Humphries. Last week in Whistler, push athlete Emily Renna and Humphries placed third in Renna’s first-ever World Cup appearance.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP COVERAGE: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“Being able to race with her was really special,” said the 29-year-old Renna, who was a college track athlete at University of Rhode Island. “It’s really nice to be around seasoned veterans. It definitely makes you feel better in the back sled with you when you’ve got a good pilot who knows the track.”

Renna finished in eighth place in Park City with 12-year U.S. team veteran and pilot Nicole Vogt (1:39.04). Vogt partnered with Jones in her first World Cup last week where they finished seventh in Whistler, 1.33 seconds behind winners Kalicki and German teammate Anabel Galander.

“To have an opportunity to be with Kaillie in my World Cup debut – it’s exciting,” said the 26-year-old Jones, who was a collegiate track and field athlete at Eastern Michigan. “I just feel like I have so much more in the tank to give, and I’m just hungry for it.”

Jones is particularly gratified with her performance after returning full-time to bobsled less than 18 months ago following the birth of her daughter, Jade Quinn Jones, in February 2021. The Greensburg, Pa., native returned to training just five months postpartum, having sat out the 2020-21 season. She competed on the North American Cup last year, finishing the season with a win (the third NA Cup title of her career) and a third place in Lake Placid.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones. “Opportunity is the main thing, and I just feel blessed to have my first World Cup podium. I’m screaming on the inside. I may not show it, but I am jumping for joy because I’m just that excited and happy to have this accomplishment.”

She admits, however, it’s not always easy to compete balance a full-time competitive career with being a mom.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle being away from my daughter,” said Jones, whose mom takes care of Jade while she travels. “I try to get my facetimes in every night and just know that when I’m pushing, I’m doing it for her. Hopefully sometime in the future I’ll have her around on the sidelines cheering me on, and that’s my main motivation – that this is for her.”

The BMW IBSF World Cup continues its North American swing Dec. 16-18 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Kaillie Humphries faces IVF journey head on — and collects monobob World Cup win along the way

Gold medallist Kaillie Humphries of Team United States celebrates during the Women's Monobob.
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PARK CITY, UTAH — Kaillie Humphries knew the quest to start a family would impact her 2022-23 season, but it’s certainly not slowing down Team USA’s reigning monobob Olympic gold medalist, who captured her first World Cup title in the discipline on Friday.

The 37-year-old Humphries, considered the greatest female driver in history with three Olympic golds (2010, 2014 and 2022) and five world championships, earned her 29th career World Cup win and her third victory on the Park City track, where she won the two-woman bobsled competitions in 2012 and 2016. Competing in Utah – as well as North American World Cup stops in Whistler last week and in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Dec. 17-18 – is one of the reasons that Humphries pushed pause on her journey to motherhood.

“I’m excited,” Humphries said following the win, marking her second straight podium in monobob following a third-place finish last week in Whistler. “I was excited for this year before it started. It’s part and parcel of why my husband and I delayed the IVF process and starting a family this season. To be able to be back in North America and have the first half of the season here – it’s been a long time since we’ve had that, so I wanted to be able to compete and it feels awesome.”

That’s not to say the leadup to this season has been without its share of hiccups. In fact, Humphries admits that following the Beijing Olympics, she had hoped to get pregnant immediately, but she and husband Travis Armbruster had to pivot when a diagnosis of stage 4 endometriosis made it clear that in vitro fertilization would be the best path for pregnancy.

“Right after the Olympics, I was like, ‘We’re going to get pregnant; it’s gonna be all good,’” she said. “I thought, my body has always performed, and it wasn’t going to be an issue. Fast forward to I find out we have to do IVF. We do the first egg retrieval, and it doesn’t go as well as I had hoped — which anybody that’s done this process knows, you can’t control any aspect of it. And so having to do a second round of egg retrieval, …it pushed everything back.”

What’s more, it brought Humphries’ training to a standstill at times, when she would have to limit all physical activity during the three-week period surrounding the egg-retrieval process.

“It impacted my training coming into this year a lot,” she says, “but I also think it definitely reset my hormones, which turns out I needed. I don’t think was a bad thing. I knew coming into this year, I wasn’t going to be in the same shape as I have been in the past, and I had to make peace with that. I know that each and every race I’m racing myself into shape, and each race is a preparation for January’s World Championships.”

Humphries also chose to share her IVF journey publicly, and she’s documented every step of the way, believing that her story makes it less scary not just for her but also for other women and female athletes who might be facing the same thing.

MORE IBSF WORLD CUP: Kelly Curtis notches career-best finish with top five at Park City skeleton World Cup

“My husband and I weren’t sure that we wanted to share it at first,” she admits. “But I felt it was important just to showcase this. I have nothing to hide. And as much as there are parts of me certain days when I think, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ At the end of the day, I know I’m not alone in this.

“It’s important, I do have a voice, and I want other people to know, as an Olympic gold medalist, if it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. Infertility exists in the female body, and it’s important that I talk about it in my journey and hopefully that’s inspired other people.”

She says she’s received an outpouring of support, which has been particularly gratifying as she continues to put a painful breakup with Team Canada in the rearview mirror. Humphries, who was born in Calgary, competed for Canada for 16 years, winning three Olympic medals including a bronze in Pyeongchang in 2018. But the relationship came to an abrupt end later just five months after the 2018 Games, after Humphries alleged emotional and mental harassment by a former coach.

Winning a gold medal in Beijing just two months after her U.S. citizenship was finalized proved to be turning point for Humphries, who commemorated the milestone with two new tattoos. She first added the date of her win – Feb. 14, 2022 – to the back of her left hand and a larger rose and skull illustration to the back of her right knee and calf, all of which commemorate her triumph over that darker period.

“The skull represents a rebirth and a growth, overcoming challenges and/or obstacles and turning something negative into something positive,” explains Humphries, who says she chose the rose because it’s the national flower of the U.S. as well as a symbol of love won or lost. She notes that she has “an actual Olympic one” planned for August 2024, which is when her favorite tattoo artist is next available.

Humphries has also found the silver lining in her IVF journey, as the competition season has been a welcome break from some of the self-imposed pressure.

“By pushing pause for four or five months and competing, it allowed me mentally to know that we can go into all of next summer and all winter focusing on just doing the actual embryo transfers and having a good pregnancy,” she says. “I don’t feel stressed to try and get pregnant right away. I felt like I was becoming competitive with myself, wondering why isn’t this working? Why can’t I do this? I tried to control too many things, and I started to get really frustrated. Mentally, it was hard. So, by pushing pause, going back to what I know — which is the sport, which is what I love – it’s allowed me to control a little bit of my future.”

Humphries’ season continues Saturday as the IBSF World Cup from Park City concludes with the two-woman bobsleigh.