The NWSL Draft and the Enigma that is Player Power

The draft depletes the widely-hated concept known as “player power.” But is that really a good thing?

By Alexandra Cadet

The purposes of the NWSL Draft are well-known to most soccer fans. It allows underperforming teams to recruit top-tier athletes in order to strengthen their squad, it’s the easiest way to league stardom for many young American players, and it helps expansion teams compose a strong roster and get off the ground quicker. But a less obvious effect of the system is the partial elimination of “player power.” And depending on who you ask, that erasure can be a huge boon for the sport or a blatant violation of an athlete’s rights.

So what is player power, anyways? Put simply, it’s the idea that athletes have a significant amount of control in the world of soccer––too much control, according to some. Skipping out on training in order to force a salary increase, revolting against a manager over tactics or unfair treatment, even declining a move to another team without an explanation…all of these actions demonstrate the high level of agency soccer players hold in the modern era. 

Predictably, this concept has been met with a fair bit of disgust. Critics say that player power is selfish in nature, and detracts from the importance of the team at large. “In ­general I think there is a ­problem [with player power],” said men’s soccer manager Mauricio Pochettino in 2017. “The most important [thing] is always the club, and then, of course, our fans. Then come the players, the manager, and the coaching staff. It’s very dangerous for every club if the players feel that they are more important than the club and the fans and are on a superior level.” 

However, the hatred for player power seems a bit overblown when remembering that being an athlete is still a job, no matter how glamorous it seems. Protesting for better treatment in a more typical workplace is largely considered the best way for laborers to hold those at the top accountable. After all, workers should never have to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of a corporation that seeks to exploit them. 

So why isn’t this same grace extended to athletes? Why are soccer players expected to show loyalty and surrender their control to a club that could trade or discard them in a heartbeat? This isn’t even getting into the positive changes that players can implement in a league if given a proper amount of agency. Never forget how Ada Hegerberg forced the Norwegian FA to pay their female athletes more by simply refusing to play for their national team. Players often use their power for good.

In fact, the NWSL has benefitted from players taking action out of self-preservation. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear that the league’s clubs were starting to value their reputation as an organization over the well-being of their own athletes. Just think of how much deeper the moral bankruptcy that’s come to light this year could’ve gotten if Alex Morgan didn’t put Lisa Baird on blast, or if Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly had kept quiet about their trauma out of “respect” and deference to their club. In these situations, the sanctity of the organization absolutely cannot come before the athletes it mistreated. If it did, then Paul Riley would still be in his job. 

But because of the NWSL Draft, the level of player power in the league has significantly lessened, at least when it comes to transfers. Clubs negotiate with each other over draft picks instead of the players they plan on signing; athletes who get selected must quickly adapt to environments, teams, and coaching styles that might not even be a good fit for them. “Right now, we don’t have rights,” said NWSLPA President Tori Huster. “The club might respect [a player’s] opinion on being traded and may choose [to listen], but overall, we don’t have that right.” A proposed solution to these issues is a Collective Bargaining Agreement, presumably between the league and the PA. But until that change is introduced, the drafts will continue as normal.

The 2022 Expansion Draft took place on Thursday, and both Angel City and San Diego had big nights. The latter club is thought to have a handshake agreement with the Portland Thorns, but it’s unclear what the deal entails. As entertaining as the proceedings were, it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch clubs swap players as if they’re Yu-Gi-Oh cards. On one hand, commodifying athletes like this leads to an increase in club power, which might help both expansion and founding teams cultivate distinct identities and fan loyalty. But if this benefit makes players even more disenfranchised than they already are, is it really worth it?

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