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