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NWSL report outlines dangerous culture of weight-shaming

Farid Benstiti, OL Reign coach from 2020-21, was named in the report for excessive weight-shaming. (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When the NWSL and the NWSLPA released their joint investigation Wednesday into widespread abuse and misconduct throughout the league’s history, a point not made as extensively in October’s Sally Q. Yates report stuck out: weight-shaming.

In sports, bodies are constantly on display and uplifted for excellence. But the NWSL report details how obsession over weight, especially by those seeking excessive control over their players, opened up avenues for harm without systemic recourse.

Fitness and nutrition are intrinsically tied to sports performance, but in the case of misconduct in the NWSL, the logic for targeted weight-shaming became arbitrary and frequently tied to the way players looked rather than how they played. Coaches then used the perception of a player being overweight to target them for harassment, “even if their strength and fitness levels were on par with their teammates,’ and even if the coach lacked the expertise to make such judgments,” per the report.

Former OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti’s reputation for weight-shaming was not a secret. USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan spoke openly about her time playing for Benstiti at Paris St-Germain and how he prioritized looks over performance. On Angel City midfielder Cari Roccaro’s podcast, Horan described how Benstiti told her she weighed too much even though she had excelled at preseason testing. Being pushed into excessive dieting affected Horan’s energy levels, adversely influencing her life both on and off the pitch.

Former OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said in the NWSL report that Benstiti had already signed his contract with the club when he became aware of Horan’s concerns, but the report states internally that he ‘considered the issue a “cultural thing” and that [Benstiti] “worked on it.” Predmore also defended the decision publicly. In a conversation upon Benstiti’s hiring with Sounder at Heart, Predmore said, “I really do believe he is somebody that shares and embodies — and will live up to — the values we have as an organization. I think fans will find he’s a much more warm and inviting person than how he’s being portrayed right now.”

But according to the NWSL investigation, Benstiti could not stop himself from continuing his preoccupation with food despite being expressly forbidden from touching the subject. One player reported that Benstiti told players, “If I see you eat snacks, I will kill you.” Another player said that, during the 2020 Challenge Cup, Benstiti was “already hiding food under the table he didn’t want girls to eat.” She also said that Benstiti “was always commenting on food and women and their weight.”

Crossing lines with weight commentary is likely pervasive in sports regardless of gender, but the peculiarity of Benstiti’s preoccupation with women and their weight underlines how gendered norms can exacerbate these issues. This also allowed concerns to be neglected as cultural differences.

Paul Riley was fired by the Courage in October 2021 after abuse allegations against him first emerged. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In the case of former Thorns and Courage coach Paul Riley, the investigation showed how harassment over players’ weight could create a power dynamic that led to sexual harassment. According to the NWSL report, Riley used player weight as a strategy for “breaking down [a player’s] confidence, saying she doesn’t look fit,” in order to build the player back up in his own image.

Riley began his harassment of former Thorns player Mana Shim with comments about her weight before becoming more aggressive in his advancements, per the report. He drove defender Kaleigh Kurtz to develop an eating disorder, for which she said she later pursued professional help. She told investigators that she “identified his conduct towards her as abusive, and realized that he had been ‘grooming’ her for sexual abuse.” As outlined in the report, comments about weight were not simply part of a coaching style — in many cases, they were used as a tool for normalizing further abuse.

Former Houston Dash coach Vera Pauw was also accused of influencing eating disorders in her players, something the current Republic of Ireland coach staunchly denies. The report emphasizes Pauw’s preoccupation with the way her players looked, saying she was concerned about the team becoming too “bulky” and adjusted weight-lifting programs accordingly. She told the investigative team that a player had confronted her about a teammate developing an eating disorder, which she felt was the players’ responsibility to take care of as a group.

Fitness and nutrition are intrinsically linked to performance, and it is obviously within the bounds of a coach’s role to discuss those subjects in that context. But the NWSL acknowledged that it must take greater care in making sure the logic involved in those discussions is sound and not used for emotional manipulation.

The report states that if a coach has a legitimate health or fitness concern about a player’s weight, they need to bring that concern to a health professional first. Those concerns then need to be discussed privately and not weaponized against a player in settings among their teammates. The league’s 2022 Anti-Harassment Policy says that emotional misconduct may include “belittling players about their body image or weight,” especially when based on arbitrary criteria rather than sports science. The NWSL also plans to do extensive vetting of new hires that goes beyond basic background checks.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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