'Absolute madness': NWSL's poor refereeing and dangerous play criticized, but no quick fixes in sight

play
Commissioner Berman: Interest in NWSL expansion 'overwhelming' (1:31)

NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman breaks down the various factors that come into play if and when the league decides to expand. (1:31)

Kris Ward is measured when speaking to the media. Last week, however, he hit a tipping point. The Washington Spirit head coach spent much of his media availability voicing frustrations about the state of refereeing in the National Women's Soccer League, and the league's lack of accountability and communication around it.

"It's absolute madness," Ward said in a lengthy rant Wednesday. "It is so beyond the pale."

Washington's 1-1 draw against the Portland Thorns was perhaps the best game of the season thus far and from the outside, it did not seem overly physical -- at least not by the NWSL's typical standard. Ward, however, believed his players had been failed on multiple occasions this season, leading to injuries. Ultimately, he said, it wasn't only hurting the players, but the NWSL as a whole.

"If you want to have talented players on the field -- which, people tune in to watch Ashley Sanchez," Ward said. "... People tune in to watch Trinity Rodman. If you're not going to do your job in protecting them, that's not going to be the case and you're going to get less exciting players on the field, and people aren't going to want to watch.

"So, the league, at some point, has to make a decision as to what they want to do. Because this is what continues to happen. It is so frustrating to watch it time and time and time again, and listen to the absolute nonsense that comes back from them."

NWSL coaches have complained about refereeing for years, and now the problem appears to be at an impasse. Ward's reference to "the league" is also notable: while referees shoulder the burden of a high-profile missed call, the root of the issue is more systemic.

Improving the standard of refereeing requires investment from the NWSL, further referee training and better working conditions. It also requires several parties to come together regarding those solutions. Historically, investment from the league, particularly in this category, has been a challenge.

The NWSL sources its referees from PRO, the Professional Referee Organization, which was founded in 2012 as a solution to better serve Major League Soccer. That league expanded rapidly over the past decade, which led PRO to create a tiered system of officials that groups the NWSL -- a Division 1 women's league -- with the United Soccer League, which operates lower-division men's leagues. Meanwhile MLS, unlike the NWSL, has also added VAR (video-assisted refereeing), creating even more demand for referees in the top tier. That tiered system inherently makes MLS the destination for the best referees.

"We work closely with PRO on our officiating and of course, it's something we'll continuously review and try to improve upon," new NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said in May, the day before the NWSL Challenge Cup final, a game that highlighted these concerns. "[We're in] ongoing conversations led by Liz Dalton, who oversees our soccer operations, to make sure that we do everything we can to protect the integrity of the game and make sure that the competition really drives the outcome.

"So, we'll continue to examine that during the season, and certainly in the offseason, to make sure that we are showing up for our game as best as we possibly can."

Berman, who arrived as NWSL commissioner in April, inherits a situation that's been brewing in plain sight for years. Sources familiar with the situation say this topic is indeed on Berman's radar as an issue that needs addressing, but her list is unsurprisingly long. That list likely includes expansion, better scheduling and increased broadcast access, but Berman must also continue to address player safety concerns after widespread allegations of abuse from coaches last season. Furthermore, the refereeing complaints and injury concerns bring to light worries about player safety through a different lens.

"For those of us that watch international football, the standard of NWSL refereeing is not such that player health and safety is being protected," said Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL Players Association.

Historically, the NWSL has corrected calls and issued fines and suspensions retroactively through the NWSL Disciplinary Committee, which has always been of "group of highly qualified former players, coaches and referees who volunteer their time in support of the league," according to the league, the identities of which the league has never divulged. Intentional or not, the committee's anonymity means that public scrutiny tends to fall solely on referee in charge rather than on the league itself.

But the Disciplinary Committee's impact is limited by the fact that it can do nothing to address bad refereeing and missed fouls in real time, and part of Ward's complaints, which have been echoed through the years by his peers, is that such retroactive discipline has been inconsistent anyway.

"[Spirit defender] Emily Sonnett gets kicked in the ribs in the Orlando game, broken ribs in the very first game [of the Challenge Cup], and the league's response is, 'Well, she finished the game,'" Ward said of the disciplinary committee, who failed to issue a sanction. "Are you out of your mind that that's your response when someone clearly gets kicked twice and has broken ribs? Your response is that she finished the game? Because she's a warrior, she's strong, and you're not going to do anything to protect her."

Improving the standard of refereeing in the NWSL, however, is complex because of several moving parts, including labor negotiations in which the league is not directly involved -- but investment is a starting point. The Professional Soccer Referees Association, or PSRA, represents officials across the U.S. and Canada and is working with PRO to ratify a collective bargaining agreement specifically for PRO2, which is the group officiating NWSL and USL games. PSRA executive director Steve Taylor is hopeful to have an agreement in place by the beginning of the 2023 season.

Among the standards sought by referees is modest increases in pay, improved travel and working conditions, and increased training from PRO to improve the standard of refereeing. MLS referees currently get more training than NWSL officials, and referees are rewarded with MLS assignments if they do well officiating in the NWSL, meaning MLS referees are more experienced anyway. That has longer-term effects on the standards of officiating, and the money for more training needs to come from somewhere. The NWSL -- specifically NWSL owners -- will need to foot some of the bill.

In 2022, a head referee for an NWSL game is paid $461, which is $30 less than even a fourth official makes for an MLS game. The same official could work as the head referee of a USL Championship game in the men's second division for $529. The NWSL rate rose 4% year over year, Taylor said, but rates continue to lag behind the men's leagues, with MLS paying the most. Historically, the NWSL has paid a small portion of PRO's operating costs, which is an added investment, though not one referees see directly in their pay.

As Ward rightly said, though, refereeing impacts the integrity of the league's final product: the competition.

The 2017 NWSL championship remains the league's most infamous game, a brutal affair that ultimately saw Portland defeat North Carolina 1-0 in a game marred by bad tackles and injuries. The league's showcase event that year is remembered more for being an out-of-control slug-fest than for the Thorns beating the Courage in a battle between the two teams that had combined to win every league trophy in a four-year stretch.

If that was the league's low point regarding officiating, the climb back up has been slow. Physical play continued the following season, with some high-profile dangerous tackles and violent plays going unpunished, including a kickout in a Portland-Seattle rivalry game that happened right in front of the head referee and fourth official. Frustrations among players and coaches remain -- visibly so in just about any match, from sarcastic thumbs-ups to full-fledged arguments -- to the point that trust between the parties appears to have eroded.

There are arguably some significant parallels between the labor struggles of referees assigned to NWSL matches and the league's players, who earlier this year ratified their first collective bargaining agreement. Traveling on the day of a game or late the night before, using a tent or a locker room with no access to a working shower -- these are headlines from recent years regarding player working conditions in the NWSL, many of which have since been improved. They were also realities for referees in extreme circumstances.

Most, if not all, of the 88 referees in the PRO2 pool are juggling other jobs along with one to three NWSL assignments per month. There is a referee shortage at the youth level, too, which has an immeasurable effect on the potential pool of referees who progress to the professional level.

Taylor says that PSRA and PRO have been working collaboratively behind the scenes to find solutions. Last year, PRO initially refused to voluntarily recognize PSRA as the certified bargaining representative of the "PRO2" group, then appealed a decision that went in favor of the PSRA. Taylor said he is hopeful that negotiating will begin in the coming months. He recognizes the complexity of the issues at hand, and he sees increased training as one of many factors that could create long-term change.

"The leagues want improved quality of officiating on the field," he said. "Our people want to deliver that, and the way to deliver that -- one very obvious way to deliver that -- is to increase the amount of training that is offered by PRO. That's the very purpose of PRO as a company, to train high-level officials. That's something that costs money."

Those solutions also take time, perhaps longer than anyone wants to hear. Improving the final product is ostensibly a priority for the NWSL as it celebrates a decade of existence, and much like needed overhauls to scheduling and broadcasting, improved refereeing is part of that equation. Ultimately, the league will be the one held responsible for the refereeing and will need to push for changes.

As Ward said in his rant: "The league absolutely has to do a better job. I don't know what it's going to take because they've already injured Trinity [Rodman], they've already broken bones on two of our players. I don't know what else it's going to take for them to step up."