One day after the NWSL's Washington Spirit announced that former coach Richie Burke was being reassigned to the organization's front office, a report came out that alleges Burke was emotionally abusive toward players.
In the report from the Washington Post, former Spirit defender Kaiya McCullough said she quit the sport last season because of Burke's treatment.
The Post said McCullough is one of at least four players who have left the club because of Burke.
“I was 100 percent in a situation where I was being emotionally abused by Richie,” McCullough told the Washington Post. “He created this environment where I knew I wasn’t playing as well, because I was so, so scared to mess up and be yelled at. It crippled my performance, and it made me super anxious.”
McCullough also told the Post that Burke made racially insensitive jokes off the field that made her feel “very uncomfortable.”
McCullough identifies as Black.
“He made me hate soccer,” McCullough added.
On Tuesday, the Spirit had announced that Burke was being reassigned to the front office, citing health issues.
But on Wednesday, after the report was published, Spirit managing partner Steve Baldwin issued a statement indicating that the Washington Post contacted the organization “on the heels” of the team's announcement of Burke's reassignment.
“We take these allegations very seriously and are undertaking an immediate investigation,” Baldwin said in the statement. “Burke has been suspended pending the investigation and is prohibited from contacting players and staff and our facilities. We, as a team, will not tolerate any situation for our players and staff that is less than professional. Our athletes, and all of those who support them, deserve the absolute best.”
The Post said the NWSL confirmed an investigation, under the league's anti-harassment policy.
The Post reported that two players spoke to the newspaper under the condition of anonymity, citing concerns of retaliation. The report also indicated that a fourth player declined to comment, but that the allegations of abusive behavior were corroborated by two other people with knowledge of the situation.
The two players who spoke anonymously said Burke was “unbelievably volatile” and alleged that he targeted certain players with “personal attacks” under the threat of losing their jobs. Burke called players “dog (expletive)” and “a waste of space,” the players said.
“I cried after practice a few times,” McCullough told the Post. “Once it became clear how (Burke) coached, what the culture was with the coaching staff, I went into survival mode. You can only do that for so long and still find joy in what you do.”
In a separate report, the Washington Post said that the Spirit defended Burke shortly after he was hired in 2018, when two former youth players called him “emotionally abusive” while Burke coached them.
“I read it, and I was immediately like: ‘How did this guy get hired? Those seem like really credible allegations,’ ” McCullough said. “But it felt like they pushed that to the side, and nothing ever came of it. I got the impression that people didn’t care.”
The Post reported that during one game, Burke was chastising a rookie, when she appeared to have a panic attack on the sideline, clutching her chest because she could not breathe. One of the players who spoke to the Post anonymously said Burke continued berating the rookie, saying, “When he smells blood, he goes harder.”
McCullough also described an incident during a small preseason dinner, in which she alleges that Burke used the n-word in front of her, while trying to describe a moment when Burke defended her sister from racial abuse.
“It wasn’t directed at me, but it was still very deeply jarring, and very uncomfortable, to hear a white person say that,” McCullough said.
According to the report, McCullough also said that Burke allegedly made a joke about a player who had been hit in the face by saying “Black eyes matter,” a reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. McCullough said that another time, when players posed for a photo of themselves kneeling on the field, Burke made a joke that they should pose while kneeling on top of a white, inflatable practice dummy, this coming in the wake of the death of George Floyd.
The Spirit are currently seventh in the NWSL standings with a record of 5-5-3 and are in danger of missing the postseason.
“Being in that position made me feel small. That’s not something I’ve ever felt in my whole life, and it’s not something I’d ever want someone else to feel,” McCullough said. “The other thing it made me feel was betrayed. I feel betrayed that people would put me in that position.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Washington Spirit's Richie Burke emotionally abusive, report says