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Steve Baldwin steps down as Spirit CEO after players ask him to resign

(Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Washington Spirit co-owner Steve Baldwin has resigned from his position as CEO and managing partner of the team amid pressure from Spirit players, staff and fans and others across the NWSL.

Calls for Baldwin to sell the team began after Washington fired coach Richie Burke amid allegations of verbal and emotional abuse and multiple staffers accused the club of fostering a toxic work culture for women, among other controversies.

In a letter to the team, Baldwin called his decision to step away “extremely difficult,” adding that he is “committed to improving the club’s culture, removing distractions and returning the focus to the players and the pursuit of a championship.”

In Baldwin’s place, Spirit president Ben Olsen will have “full authority over all club operations.” Baldwin’s decision to hire Olsen in September and Olsen’s first interview in the role sparked their own controversies, with Baldwin having been accused of hiring a de-facto lackey.

According to the Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy, who has been at the center of the reporting on the club’s scandals, Spirit players had written Baldwin a letter asking him to step down as CEO and Managing Director.

In his statement, Baldwin gave no indication that he plans to sell his stake in the team.

“I have no doubt made some mistakes, but my efforts and focus were always on building a professional experience for our players, the club’s profile and the beautiful game in the DMV. I hope that stepping back removes me as a distraction and allows the club to thrive,” Baldwin concluded his letter.

The move comes after a tumultuous couple of months for the Spirit. In August, the Spirit announced that Burke would be stepping down from his post as head coach to work in the team’s front office. A day later, the Washington Post detailed allegations of verbal and emotional abuse against Richie. He was later fired and the NWSL launched an investigation into the team.

Also in August, the Post reported that Baldwin and co-owner Y. Michele Kang were fighting for control of the Spirit. Then, in late September, the Post reported that the NWSL’s investigation had expanded, with multiple people accusing the club of fostering a toxic working environment for women. A little over a week ago, the NWSL concluded its investigation, issuing a violation notice to the Spirit and forcing them to respond within 14 days. The league also ruled that the Spirit are not allowed to participate in league governance matters for the foreseeable future.

In the aftermath, many — including the Spirit Squadron and Kang — have called on Baldwin to sell the team, a matter he has not publicly addressed.

Baldwin’s resignation comes amid a league-wide reckoning over the NWSL’s power structure and its protection of players. Last week, The Athletic detailed allegations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse against former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. In the aftermath, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned and the NWSL, FIFA and US Soccer each opened investigations into Riley and the widespread misconduct.