Interviews

Plush: NWSL, Courage can be 'part of the solution' to fight HB2 in North Carolina

Brad Smith-ISI Photos

Franchise relocation has put his league on the front lines, but a normally reserved Plush is ready to take on North Carolina's "bathroom law."

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“To me, there’s more than one way to approach something.” It’s a sentiment often attached to basic dichotomies: right or wrong; perfect or flawed; correct or mistaken. In this case, though, there's no obvious course.

The person seeing “more than one way” is Jeff Plush, the commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League who, thanks to the sale of the Western New York Flash to an ownership group in North Carolina, as a troublesome “something” to tackle. As organizations pull business out of the state in response to HB2, the casually labeled “bathroom law,” Plush and the NWSL find themselves on the ground, drawn into a battle many are waging in absentia. The newly-named North Carolina Courage puts the country’s top-tier women’s professional league on the front lines of the fight to repeal the law.

I think we show every day that we’re a league that stands for diversity and stands for inclusiveness, and we’re going to operate like this on a daily basis.

“I’m big on us standing shoulder-to-shoulder with these people,” Plush told FourFourTwo the day after leaving North Carolina, where he helped new owner Steve Malik and North Carolina governor Roy Cooper unveil the NWSL's first relocated team. Malik has purchased and relocated the league’s defending champion, the Western New York Flash, with the Courage set to begin play in April.

Despite efforts to repeal, HB2 remains on the books, leaving the NWSL to explain why it’s going to North Carolina.

“I think we show every day that we’re a league that stands for diversity and stands for inclusiveness, and we’re going to operate like this on a daily basis,” the commissioner explained, when asked about the league’s stance on HB2. “I’m proud of the position, and I think it’s something we take very seriously. I think it’s an opportunity to be part of the solution.”

It’s not an opportunity that took Plush by surprise. As part of an ongoing dialogue with Malik, one that covered much of the 2016 calendar year, the NWSL voiced concern about operating under HB2, a state law that bars transgender people from using public bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity, instead forcing them to use facilities aligning with their birth certificate gender. The measure also bars local governments from extending similar protections.

“We probably had some expectations relative to [HB2] getting overturned,” Plush admitted, euphemistically, about his early expansion discussions with the Malik’s group.

Those conversations took on a different tone in October when, after discussing a potential sale of Western New York at league meetings, a North Carolina team for the 2017 season came into view.

That presented the NWSL with a dilemma, one which, to reduce the debate around HB2, presents two paths. The first is to withdraw – to decline to subject players, staff and fans to a state many see as having adopted a human rights violation. The NBA did such when it relocated the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte, as did the NCAA when December’s Women’s College Cup moved from Cary, N.C., to San Jose, Calif.  The NCAA withdrew seven championship events from the state for the 2016-17 academic year. At the NCAA conference level, the Southeastern Conference moved its football title game from Charlotte to Orlando in response to HB2.

The distinction between those one-off events and establishing a persistent presence may be why groups like Equality North Carolina support the Flash’s relocation, or why the NWSL Board of Governors approved the move. It may be why, despite relocating its All-Star game, the NBA continues to support its franchise in Charlotte, the Hornets, or why others are adopting a stay-and-fight approach. There may be more than one way to approach this problem.

If we’re going to be a league that believes in equality and opportunity and inclusiveness, then what better way to demonstrate it than to take on situations that aren’t easy?

“You’ve seen (individual) events moved, right?” Plush asks, explaining the process the league undertook as the North Carolina possibly emerged. “You’ve seen events moved for a variety of reasons, but you have franchises operating (in North Carolina) on a daily basis. They’re there to demonstrate there are organizations that want to operate in a manner that’s consistent with their mission, and that’s inclusive and diverse, and a platform that embraces opportunity.

“I have a lot of confidence we’ll be able to operate in a really positive way and endeavor to be part of the solution. I don’t say that naively. I’m not suggesting that we roll into town and this is going to be easy. But I think this is the right thing.”

With his words, Plush seems to know: This message needs to be different. Over his two seasons at the top of the NWSL, Plush has spoken without commitment. Whether the issue is league standards, expansion, broadcasts, or general growth, the former managing director of Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids has proven adept at giving detailed, positive answers that don’t limit the league’s position. He’s the person you want in front of the microphone when you need to keep all options open.

Not this time. When Plush says “I don’t say that naively,” he’s aware of how public relations are perceived. He wants this message to be more. When it comes to HB2, he wants to be hopeful about the league’s role in repeal. Make no mistake about it: Plush and the NWSL do not condone HB2.

“I think you have to have some conviction,” Plush says, coincidentally adopting language an HB2 opponent could use to urge the NWSL to stay out of North Carolina. But in Plush’s view, that’s the path of least resistance. “If we’re going to be a league that believes in equality and opportunity and inclusiveness — which we are, frankly — then what better way to demonstrate it than to take on situations that aren’t easy?”

I think the wrong thing is standing on the sidelines. I think this is an opportunity to be involved.

“Suffice to say it’s an interesting political climate that we’re in,” Plush says, alluding to the potential to pass similar, discriminatory laws in other NWSL states, like Texas. “We have to, at times, be willing to take a leadership position on things; not us, not me, but sports, or arts, or whatever [the field]. I think we find there’s a lot more like-minded people than we think, and it’s time to band together, sometimes, and hope to do what needs to be done.”

It certainly is a more active stance than refusal, but it’s also one that coincides with what, on a business level, is best for the league. Western New York was a family-run team in a market which, the Sahlen family conceded in its statement announcing the sale, was “not the right fit for the NWSL and the future direction of the league.” Malik is an ambitious owner from a soccer hotbed who, as announced last month, is intent on having professional soccer teams at the highest levels on both the men’s and women’s side.

“Let me be really clear to tell you how appreciative we are of Joe Sahlen,” Plush says, when asked about the ownership change. “You have a family that has given years and years, and frankly, has contributed millions of dollars to U.S. soccer. That should be applauded …

“But things evolve, and in particular, our expectations and our demands and our standards are all being raised, as they should be. The players have earned that, and I say this all the time, we’ve earned the right to demand more of ourselves.”

It’s an upgrade. On the business side, the NWSL is stronger now than it was two weeks ago. The league gets a bigger market and a resourceful owner thanks to a convenient transition away from a legacy club. If it wasn’t for HB2, this move would be trumpeted as an unambiguous win for a growing league, one that significantly helps the NWSL’s long-term potential.

“I understand, there’s always going to be people who are upset, but we’re in a better market, a more affluent market, with a fantastic facility — it will be one of our very best facilities overnight,” Plush explains. “Those are all positives.”

In the face of HB2, though, that rationale could be seen as a motive. Is the league putting business concerns ahead of moral obligation? What, Plush was asked, would he say to those who are disappointed at the league’s move?

The response is as close as you’ll get to a moral appeal.

“I think the wrong thing, or the thing I just don’t agree with, is standing on the sidelines,” Plush explains. “I think this is an opportunity to be involved and demonstrate that we’re going to do things in a way that people can be proud of.”

We’re not the prevailing people within this debate, but we can have our voice.

It’s an admirable plan, but it’s not a clear one. Plush notes that, on the ground, there is a lot of support for HB2 repeal. Governor Cooper, the people within Raleigh and the Courage organization itself are all, largely, against HB2, yet the law is still on the books. For those whp see repeal a human rights issue, any new participation in North Carolina along these lines only normalizes a discriminatory law.

If the top priority transcends soccer and is the repeal of HB2, how does giving up the league’s greatest leverage help? If Malik prioritizes HB2 repeal above his soccer interests, how does giving up leverage empower that opposition?

For Plush, that logic is also undeniable.

“Smart people have different opinions (on this),” he concedes. “There is a logic to that. I also think there’s logic to there being no better way to change something than being immersed in it. If we want to be a part of things changing … then you have to get engaged. I almost feel like it’s the easy way out to say ‘we’re not going there.’ I think the most impactful thing is to say “We’re here. We’re open for business. We are an entity that believes in inclusiveness, welcomes all, and diversity, and those that don’t, we disagree with you strongly.’”

There appears to be no right answer. Stay away from North Carolina or fight on the ground? One is the easy route, as Plush calls it. The other sacrifices leverage. Neither opts out of the fight, but neither provides an obvious solution. Ultimately, it may be beyond the power of sports to have this much influence.

“We’re not the prevailing people within this debate,” Plush says, “but we can have our voice.”

The NWSL is on the ground, now. Right or wrong, Plush and the league have chosen their battle. To their credit, it’s a battle they’ve elected to face head-on. Rather than “naively” accept what’s been thrust upon them, the NWSL wants to be a force for good.

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Richard Farley is the Deputy Editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.