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Jessica Berman Q+A: How NWSL can redefine sports, plus expansion, TV, scheduling updates

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Jessica Berman officially began her role as the commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League on April 20.

A week in, she spoke with The Equalizer about everything from timelines and criteria for league expansion, how she is addressing issues with scheduling conflicts and broadcast quality, the next round of media and TV rights, hiring more staff to streamline league operations, and why she thinks the NWSL “will redefine the way that brands and fans look at women’s sports.” Subscribers get access to all that exclusive insight from the league’s new leader.

First, we address a more serious issue regarding the ongoing investigation into discrimination, harassment, abuse, and bullying within the NWSL. Tuesday brought news that Houston Dash head coach and general manager James Clarkson has been suspended pending further investigation. Berman’s response to that, and insight into the league investigation at large, is open and accessible to all readers.

The Equalizer: There was significant news Tuesday with the suspension of Houston Dash coach and general manager James Clarkson. I’m mindful you can’t speak to the specifics of the investigation, but how do you get up to speed on an investigation that is six months in, and how do you approach it from the perspective of having to make immediate, major decisions?

Jessica Berman: Yeah, it’s a good question. Everything in life, I guess, you can draw back on some prior experience that has helped prepare you for the moment you’re facing. My first job out of law school was that I worked at Proskauer Rose, where I was the labor employment lawyer, and as an employment lawyer, I handled many, many investigations into workplace misconduct. And during my years at the NHL, I was basically human resources’ main lawyer during my first nine years at the NHL.

So, I guess that’s all to say that I am very comfortable and familiar with workplace misconduct issues and investigations, and the process associated with it — which I think has been really helpful because none of that needs to be demystified for me. It’s allowed me to sort of be inserted into the ongoing conversations with the joint investigative team seamlessly, and really quickly get up to speed on the facts and the status of the overall investigation, which has been ongoing since October, and then particularly as it relates to the Clarkson/Houston situation, which we dealt with last night.

No one likes to have to deal with these issues, but as someone who is a firm believer in culture, it’s a byproduct of creating a process and an environment that builds confidence in our employees, in our players in this situation, to be able to come forward and know that the situation will be handled. While it’s not a great situation, it does mean that the process that the league and the union implemented in the fall is working as intended.

Just for clarity on that process: Something was flagged and brought to your attention in the recent days, I assume, and from there any final decision would be pending the conclusion of the investigation?

Berman: As a general matter — not necessarily specific to Clarkson — as a general matter, the mandate of the investigative team is to investigate both historic and current issues that are brought forward. The invitation has been given and made to all current and former players to bring forward and concerns that they have. So, it is the job of the joint investigators from Covington & Burling and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, to pursue and investigate any concerns that are brought to their attention. On that basis, both the league and the union collaborate with the joint investigators on how to address issues that come to light.

There was an indication early on that this investigation could take a year to complete. Have you been given any further idea about how long the entire investigation will take to complete?

Berman: No particular end date other than we want to be thorough and we want to act expeditiously. Those two things may or may not always align, and our joint investigative team is very clearly being instructed by both the league and the players association to execute those two priorities. They are working quickly, but they also are instructed to speak with anyone and everyone that they need to in order to have comfort that when we close the investigation, that it’s concluded with confidence.

You mentioned your background in law and workplace complaints, so you had some idea of what you were coming into. In the fall, you saw a lot of the news around the league’s reckoning with bad actors from the outside, like most of us. And at the time, you probably had no idea that this would be your future. Has your perspective of how that was handled or what needs to be done going forward changed at all now that you’ve gotten a look inside?

Berman: At the time when all the news came out, it’s true: I had no idea that it would be my world in the not-too-distant future. But I guess my outside observation is that you never really know or appreciate how hard people are working on the inside to do the right thing. That’s not to minimize the concerns or challenges that have been surfaced, both in the fall and ongoing with the investigation, but my personal observation is just a very confident takeaway that there are a lot of really smart, dedicated people who are working really hard to make this right for the future of the league, and for the players. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t have assumed that in the fall, I just would have had no reason to know what’s happening behind the scenes, to your point. So, it’s given me a lot of confident in the future of the league because there’s an army of people who are 100% committed to making sure that we get this right moving forward.  

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I’ll do my best to avoid the cliché of asking you what your plan is for the next X number of years or days, but now that you’ve had some time to look behind the curtain, what are some areas of immediate focus for you?

Berman: Well, two of them relate to subjects we’ve already discussed, which is focusing on the culture of the league, which clearly is a priority to be proactive in establishing the king of work environment that players, employees, and fans are proud to associate with, as well as focusing on our operational rigor and reputational capital, to ensure that there’s internal and external credibility for the league.

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