On January 12th, the 2023 National Women’s Soccer League draft will be held, where hopeful footballers all across colleges and universities in the U.S. will be hoping to be picked and have their professional careers start. It goes without saying that 2022 was an eventful year for not only the NWSL but also in Washington D.C. The current political landscape has suddenly changed the complexion of the draft, and it’s worth examining the problematic nature of the NWSL draft.
For those unfamiliar, the draft is where the twelve NWSL teams can select the best players in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to join their team. It’s a system in which the teams have full choice of the players they select and the players realistically can’t say no. This contrasts with much of the rest of the world where players can join the youth ranks of whatever team they wish and (provided they’re good enough) go on to start their career at the club of their choosing.
So what’s the issue? Well just like in the essence of the draft itself, it comes down to choice. On Friday, June 24th, 2022 the US Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade. This meant that abortion rights were suddenly no longer protected as a Federal right in the United States. Overnight abortion suddenly became illegal in numerous states and many more became drafting up legislation to either ban abortion or severely restrict it. As of January 2023, the following states have fully banned abortions; Idaho, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia. You might’ve noticed that Texas and Kentucky are highlighted, that’s because those two states are home to NWSL teams, Houston Dash and Racing Louisville FC.
Immediately, one-sixth of the players drafted on January twelfth will have fewer rights than their counterparts. It goes without saying that no one plans to have an abortion, it’s an emergency procedure used to terminate pregnancies whether through choice or as a critical medical intervention. If a player for the Houston Dash or Racing Louisville was to become pregnant during the season, it’s a lot harder for them to get an abortion than a peer of there’s who plays in California. There is of course the ability for players to get abortions out of state, but often abortions are required to be scheduled and are subject to waiting periods. Keep in mind as well that Texas and Kentucky are closely located to also have absolute abortion bans, which limits the options.
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There are also other states that while they don’t have absolute abortion rights, they do have restrictive laws. Relevant to the current NWSL teams, those states are North Carolina and Florida – this affects the North Carolina Courage, and Orlando Pride. North Carolina law permits abortion for up to twenty weeks, which is a month less than is recommended for fully legal abortion. That may sound like a long time, but if you are a busy athlete who is constantly in and out of the state and playing twenty-two games…every possible available week to get an abortion counts. Although I have to admit that North Carolina is a lot better than most states.
As for Florida, the legal abortion period is a shorter fifteen weeks as it stands. Florida is a state that under Republican governor Ron DeSantis is only getting ‘redder’. At the time of writing DeSantis and the Florida government want to shorten the legal period to just twelve weeks, half the time allowed for a fully legal abortion.
So that gives us four teams, a quarter of the league that is based in states with fewer rights for woman than their NWSL counterparts. Some of the players drafted by one of those four teams may hold anti-abortion views, as is their prerogative. But for those who are pro-choice, they have been essentially forced to move to a state in which their rights as a woman could very much be lesser than the rights they had before they were drafted. In the blink of an eye, a college player based in pro-choice California or Maryland now has no choice but to play in Texas or Kentucky.
It’s worth noting that this is how it stands in 2023. Woman’s sport, particularly soccer is only getting more and more popular, it is inevitable that the NWSL will expand into more states. Utah based Salt Lake City looks like a very likely expansion team I going forward, and in the state of Utah – abortions are legal for up to eighteen weeks, less than North Carolina. Georgia and Tennessee both have MLS teams and the appropriate soccer infrastructure to field an NWSL team tomorrow if needed, should the league ever expand to those states, then they’ll have to content with an absolute abortion ban in Tennessee, and a six week legal abortion window in Georgia.
In a decision that has nothing to do with them, multiple women will potentially have reproductive rights stripped away from them, and provided they want to chase their dream as a professional soccer player, they’ll be little to nothing they can do about it. The NWSL is aware of this, NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman has already said that abortion rights will be considered when it comes to choosing new expansion teams, so there is every chance that the number of abortion-restricted states with NWSL teams stays to just four.
I’m not sure in all honesty what can be done about the draft and implication of reproductive rights and varying abortion laws, with how big the United States and how few and spread out teams the NWSL has I’m not sure a European style system of playing development would work, certainly in the short term. Ultimately all I hope to do with this article is raise awareness, and hopefully one day this issue can be resolved one way or another.
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