Angie Kanellopulos can’t pinpoint a particular incident that has stood out to her during this ongoing period of turmoil for the Washington Spirit. Too much has happened for her to do that.
“It’s the whole package that is just kind of unbelievable,” Kanellopulos, the president of the Spirit Squadron supporters’ group, tells City Paper.
Unbelievable may be an understatement. In a period of less than two months, the Spirit organization has dismissed its head coach, Richie Burke, over allegations of verbal abuse, endured a COVID-19 outbreak that cost the team two games, watched a very public ownership power struggle that has yet to be resolved, and seen its own fans enact a semi-boycott of its games.
The ownership struggle, between co-owners Steve Baldwin and Y. Michele Kang, has exploded into public view and for many Spirit fans, it’s safe to say there is only one desired outcome.
“We are of the opinion that we don’t think Steve Baldwin is the right person to be at the helm of the Spirit,” Kanellopulos says.
Last week the Squadron released a statement saying the group would limit gameday activities like chants, flags, and drums until its concerns are addressed: “We cannot continue to operate as if there is not a cancer eating away at the heart and soul of this club,” the statement says. It ends with a plea that’s become common among Spirit fans: “Sell the team, Steve.”
Fellow Spirit supporters’ group Rose Room Collective said it fully backed the Squadron’s decision. Fans have been skeptical of Baldwin for some time, dating back at least to Burke’s hiring as head coach in 2019. The team knew of previous accusations of verbal abuse against Burke during his time as a youth soccer coach, but the Spirit gave him the job anyway. At the time, the team said the youth club investigated the matter and determined no action was necessary.
That decision backfired two years later when a bombshell Washington Post report detailed allegations of similar behavior during Burke’s time in charge of the Spirit. When the Spirit initially tried to dispose of Burke, the team compounded the problem by releasing a statement saying he had been “re-assigned to the Spirit front office” due to “health concerns.”
In the aftermath of the Burke saga, Kang, who joined the Spirit as an investor last year, has been looking to take Baldwin’s place as majority owner. Baldwin, though, has chafed at Kang’s move as detailed in a report by the Post. In a letter distributed to Spirit investors this week, Kang called on Baldwin to let her take over, saying that many players and staff had told her about a toxic workplace culture.
“An archaic and hierarchical command-and-control mindset, built on bullying and cronyism, left no room for the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Kang wrote.
Kang added that when she approached her fellow owners about her concerns, her efforts “were met with denial, evasion, and outright hostility, along with demands that I identify those who told me of these concerns.”
City Paper has reached out to the Spirit for comment on Kang’s letter and has yet to receive a response. This story will be updated if the team responds.
The Squadron’s call for Baldwin to sell the team was a long time coming. For some die-hards though, it’s too late to undo the damage of the past year.
“Within the group that I’m familiar with, we have already lost people,” Kanellopulos says. “They’re season ticket holders this year, and they’ve already decided to put their money elsewhere next year.”
Kanellopulos knows of a friend who has opted to cancel her Spirit season tickets in favor of the Washington Mystics. “She wanted to support an organization and a league that is more in line with her beliefs,” Kanellopulos explains. “And right now she doesn’t feel like the NWSL or the Spirit are that.”
The Spirit is not the only team plagued by allegations of a toxic workplace culture over the past year, which has increased pressure on the NWSL and its players association to strike a deal on the league’s first collective bargaining agreement. Having a CBA in place would offer protections to players that currently do not exist.
“The players are pushing a CBA. I think something like that as a contract on paper that details the expected player safety standards would go a long way,” Kanellopulos says.
There are clearly improvements that are needed at the league level but among Spirit fans, there is one more immediate goal when it comes to rebuilding their own team’s culture. Asked if Baldwin had any defenders left among the team’s supporters’ groups, Kanellopulos responds: “The ship has sailed.”