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NWSL partnership with nonprofit RISE is another failure to be transparent

RISE’s 25-member board of directors is made up predominantly of white men, with two white women and no Black women or women of color.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinals Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The National Women’s Soccer League, founded in 2012, has struggled in its short history to provide transparency to fans and players on various issues.

For the Red Stars alone, this year has included the use of a clip showing Casey Krueger in an emotional embrace with teammate Julie Ertz in a promotional video. The year also saw the NWSL open an investigation into allegations by Sarah Gorden that she was racially profiled after a match in Houston.

The league never has addressed publicly its use of the image between Krueger and Ertz to promote a documentary on the 2020 Challenge Cup. The promotional video has been deleted from Twitter. Its announcement that no disciplinary action would be taken in the wake of Gorden’s claims left fans and members of the league hurt and confused.

So, when the league announced last week a yearlong partnership with nonprofit RISE as a commitment to a continued effort to make the league more inclusive, the decision was met with backlash.

“I love that the fans are so engaged,” RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford said.

Fans haven’t just been engaged, they’ve been upset.

RISE was founded in 2015 by real-estate developer and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen M. Ross, who in 2019 hosted a fundraiser that reportedly brought in $12 million for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

Additionally, RISE’s 25-member board of directors is comprised predominantly of white men, with two white women and zero Black women or women of color. Billings-Burford, a Black woman, is not listed as a board member of RISE.

In response to a request for an interview with NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird or a member of the league’s office, the Sun-Times was told all information has been provided in a release.

“I can’t change what Steve did,” Billings-Burford said. “I can talk to him about why I disagree with it, and I can clarify what RISE is about.”

The NWSL and the players’ association jointly reached out to RISE in the spring to discuss what the organization does and how it could help the league.

Billings-Burford said Gotham FC player Margaret “Midge” Purce represented the Black Women’s Players Collective on multiple planning calls and Meghann Burke represented the NWSLPA.

This week, members of the Red Stars said they had no knowledge the league was working on a partnership with RISE or about the announcement.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Gorden said

after the Red Stars 3-1 victory Sunday against the Washington Spirit.

“I don’t know anything either,” Mal Pugh added.

“I don’t think any of us had any knowledge of it,” Arin Wright said.

Aside from Purce and Burke, it’s unclear how many players across the league were involved in planning calls. The Red Stars expressed they would like to have more information on partnerships before they are announced to the public.

Ross’ bio as the founder of the organization under the history tab on RISE’s website has been removed.

Billings-Burford, who has been with RISE for three years, explicitly stated she believes Ross is genuine in his concern about racism. RISE’s board members do not make management decisions or facilitate any programming.

The diversity issue on RISE’s board is a reflection of a deeper societal problem, Billings-Burford said. RISE’s bylaws require a certain number of the board’s seats go to commissioners of the major leagues and heads of various media companies.

RISE had a board vote to expand its size, and Billings-Burford said she already has begun to approach WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, Baird and others.

In their partnership with the NWSL, RISE’s first course of action is to do a survey and partake in what they call a discovery phase to assess the environment. The organization’s approach and priorities are then shaped based on what they gather.

RISE also will be hosting focus groups with players (potentially 25-50) that the NWSLPA and BWPC choose to collect more perspectives that will steer programming. RISE’s belief is that league leadership will need to partake in their programming as well.

Programming will include workshops, community engagement, digital modules and town-hall discussions that promote diversity, equity and social justice throughout the league. This programming is already being planned by RISE, but the content will come directly from the organization’s assessment of the league.

“We have zero interest in running a partnership that doesn’t take everyone into account because it won’t achieve our mission,’’ Billings-Burford said. “Our mission is education and empowerment for unity.”