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Jessica Berman wants to earn players’ trust as NWSL commissioner

(Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)

New NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman knew she wanted to work in sports from the time she was 16 years old. Sitting beside a fan in a suit and another in jeans and a baseball cap at a New York Islanders game, Berman watched as the crowd erupted and the fans hugged each other after an Islanders goal.

Following the game, she asked the two people if they knew each other. They did not.

“The only thing that united them in that moment was their love for the Islanders, and I decided I had to work in sports,” Berman said Wednesday during her introductory press conference with the NWSL. “That moment was the moment I decided that sports has a platform that is unique among other cultural elements, and I think at this time, in this moment, women’s sports has that perhaps more so than any other sport.”

When Berman steps in for five-month interim CEO Marla Messing and begins her new role on April 20, she plans to foster the same level of unity she saw that day at the Islanders game. Her first priority is to form a strong relationship between the league and the NWSL Players Association. After a year in which multiple coaches were fired amid abuse allegations, an owners dispute dragged out publicly for months and players criticized the NWSL front office for a lack of transparency under former commissioner Lisa Baird, Berman knows the league has a lot of work to do to earn back players’ trust.

“I like to think that everyone has a superpower,” she said. “My superpower, I believe, is building consensus and really listening and learning and trying to understand different people’s perspectives.

“I would really want to seek to understand and learn the context of what is the underpinning of any of those challenges and then work to figure out solutions. I believe that working together with all the stakeholders, we can combat almost anything.”

The former NHL executive said she isn’t afraid to push back on the NWSL owners and to stand up for what the players want. In fact, she believes that mindset is why she landed the job, since players played a key role in the search and hiring process.

“Consensus-building doesn’t mean everybody always gets what they want; it means that they understand the context and the rationale for why we need to make a particular decision,” Berman said.

Berman has learned how to lead through adversity during the 13 years she spent at the NHL and the two and a half years she served as deputy commissioner and executive vice president of business affairs of the National Lacrosse League. Before joining the NLL, she had a front-row seat to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s communications with the board of governors, an experience she believes has prepared her for this next challenge.

“That’s the job of the commissioner: to help the teams really understand and the board to really understand the broader context for why and how decisions are being made,” she said.

Berman will serve a four-year term as commissioner, but she’s intent on building trust with the players now while there are no outstanding urgent tasks, such as the collective bargaining agreement the league and NWSLPA ratified on Jan. 31.

Just as she does at 10 a.m. every Tuesday in the National Lacrosse League, Berman will set up standard meetings where NWSLPA representatives can bring forward issues or questions. She and NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke have already arranged weekly calls.

“Those are the things that, in my experience, build trust,” Berman said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to agree, doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to reach solutions at every turn, but we will have discussions openly and transparently. We will be professional and respectful.”

If there’s ever a need for a neutral arbitrator in discussions, Berman will make that happen — whatever it takes to help the NWSL and Players Association maintain a relationship, she said.

When asked about the league’s relationship with Black Women’s Player Collective (BWPC), a non-profit created by the Black players in the NWSL to advance opportunities for Black girls in sport, Berman referenced her personal background. Growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. sparked Berman’s “obsession,” as she calls it, with breaking down barriers and recognizing privilege.

“This is an area I’m interested in, focused on, always wanting to learn, make sure we’re informed by subject matter experts,” she said, adding that she spoke to BWPC board member Midge Purce on Tuesday about diversity in the league.

The Players’ Commissioner Search Committee included Burke, Crystal Dunn, Kaylie Collins, Jane Campbell, Bri Visalli, Nicole Barnhart, Emily Menges, Tori Huster. They didn’t have the authority to make decisions about candidates, but their opinions were taken into consideration.

“Hats off to the union for requesting [involvement] and to the Board of Governors for agreeing to have them be part of the process and have a seat at the table,” Berman said.

She met with the PA player representatives during two separate calls: one with the east group and the other with the west. Those conversations gave her a better understanding of their expectations are and how they envision working together going forward.

“It actually helped me to feel confident coming into the position,” she said.

After answering their questions — which Berman said were thoughtful, engaging and passionate — she had the opportunity to ask some of her own, allowing her to dig into how the players believe the league can move forward and the ways in which they want to see that happen.

“I appreciate the enormity of the task at hand,” she said. “I would only really do it if I felt like I had the tools and the skill set to come forward and help this league to achieve its success.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.