The National Women's Soccer League Players Association executive director Meghann Burke and Chicago Red Stars forward Kealia Watt, a union rep, want to rethink the future of NWSL, with an emphasis on putting player safety at the forefront in wake of recent scandals. Collective bargaining agreement negotiations between the players and the league have been ongoing all season, but recent reports of toxic environments and sexual misconduct have made those discussions all the more important. The players are calling for a change as the league grapples with numerous issues in the midst of a reckoning.

Watt and Burke joined "Attacking Third," a CBS Sports podcast dedicated to women's soccer, to discuss the current challenges the players and the league face, the "systemic failures" of the past, and how they plan on "having a seat at the table" with demands to rebuild a stronger league moving forward as the Players Association grows into an official union more capable of exercising its power.

The 2021 regular season, which is in its final week before the start of the postseason in November, has been overshadowed by the off-field controversies and scandals from recent months. Behind the scenes, the union is hard at work hoping to secure the first-ever collective bargaining agreement in NWSL history. Reaching an agreement on a CBA is all the more important for the players given how dramatically the league was rocked by scandal when ex-players stepped forward and shared stories of harassment and sexual coercion.

Burke explained why it's too easy to blame Lisa Baird, who resigned Oct. 1 as NWSL commissioner in wake of these scandals and was criticized for not taking complaints of abuse from coaches seriously enough, for the systemic failures at hand.

"When we're talking about systemic failure and systems issues, it's too convenient and easy to blame one person and one actor. When it's a systemic issue of the type we're talking about, it's everyone and it's everything," Burke said. "Yes, it's true -- we saw the emails, we know what happened earlier this spring. Yeah, I do think the commissioner and the general counsel dropped the ball, but I don't think they are the only ones, and I don't think changing the commissioner and the general counsel solves it. And I actually don't know that the NWSL and the Board of Governors would agree that that fixes the problem, right? 

"We do need a fresh direction, we do need to kind of rebuild our league around player safety. One of the things that I've made pretty clear is that, as we rethink the future of NWSL, we need to start with: 'Does this keep players safe? Does this promote player safety or not?' If the answer is yes, we move on. It's like a decision tree. We go through our process, but then at the end, before we actually adopt the proposal or take action, we ask the same question again: 'Did this advance player safety? Does this keep players safe?' And if the answer is no, we go right back to the beginning and start over again.

"We absolutely think there needs to be a much larger change than those two roles. The executive committee was a temporary stopgap measure, just to kind of keep the league functioning until another step can be taken. Now we have an interim CEO who's been hired, an interim general counsel, but again that's not the permanent solution either, right? There are whole overhauls of systems that need to be had, and that process is going to take a long time, but what you're seeing with our demands is an insistence on being part of that and having a seat at the table, so to speak."

You can listen to the full "Attacking Third" interview below or watch a video snippet above: 

The union now comes to the bargaining table not only fighting over the structure of salaries and revenue, but also for fundamentally safe working environments. For Watt, an eight-year veteran of the league and a player representative for four years, the two things go hand in hand as they demand for transparency.

"It's huge to even be a part of this conversation," Watt said. "Two years ago, one year ago, this would not be heard of, so we have made huge strides there. Even in CBA negotiations, we've been able to be in the room and share our experiences and share directly with the league how we feel, and that has never happened in the past.

"We need transparency throughout the league and to the players and keeping us informed. For a majority of the time I've been in this league, we don't really know what's going on. We would hear and see things on Twitter before we were told anything. It's so important to listen to players, to hear players, and keep us informed. So far, the league has taken the right action, but it cannot stop here. We have to continue to work towards keeping us safe and improving our league. Being safe as a player is the bare minimum. We have a lot more work to do than that, but unfortunately right now that is what we're focused on."

Since the conclusion of previous investigations, then-Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke had his contract terminated for cause in violation of the league's anti-harassment policy, and Paul Riley had his contract as head coach of the North Carolina Courage terminated shortly after reports were published with allegations of sexual misconduct. Upon the publishing of the reports, the NWSLPA released a statement, expressing solidarity with the players who came forward, and support resources for players, and a list of demands to the league. 

The statement called for action, and an investigation into any complaints related to Riley, who previously coached the Philadelphia Independence of the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer as well as the NWSL's Portland Thorns. A hotline was also introduced for players to report abuse. The NWSLPA made it clear through their social media messages that the union will back the players "who have brought their stories into the light -- both known and unknown." It also provided additional resources for current, former, or future players by making a sports psychologist available in midst of turmoil. 

"There's nothing more important than players being protected and feeling protected, and really supporting these victims that have come forward. There's nothing more important than that," said Watt. 

"So, while it has been draining at times and exhausting and difficult, this is why we want to be player reps. This is why we work hard, and put all this time in, because we want the league to succeed. And the No. 1 thing that needs to happen for the league to succeed is for players to be safe."

The league postponed games the following weekend in collaboration with the union in order to give players time to process and heal from the recent developments. Once the season resumed, players, coaches and staff took part in demonstrations by locking arms around the center circle in observation for a full minute in solidarity and support for former players Sinead Farrely and Mana Shim, and former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough. 

The union also presented a list of demands before games resumed, which among them included seven points of action that involves more accountability and transparency between the league and the union. , such as a "Step Back Protocol" to avoid abuse of power in the workplace:

"We were serious about these demands and we will go through every single one and either check them off or not," Watt said. "Again, a lot of it has to do with investigating the league, clubs, coaching staffs -- all of that needs to be answered and we're serious about that."

Additional demands include participation in investigations conducted and a role in the hiring of a new league commissioner, which was addressed when the league recently introduced longtime sports executive Marla Messing as interim CEO on Oct. 18 in wake of Baird's resignation. Messing helped grow the popularity of the sport in the 1990s, as she was involved in organizing the 1994 and 1999 FIFA World Cups on American soil and was once the senior vice president of Major League Soccer back in 1995. 

With news of Messing at the helm, the NWSL and the Players Association agreed to a mutual, singular investigation into recent allegations. The NWSLPA will also take part of the search process when it comes to hiring the next commissioner.

"We need to give her a chance," Burke said of the work ahead for Messing. "She's coming into a crisis to manage it, and so far, [she's] dove in head first. I know she's probably sleeping very little and constantly on the phone and getting to work and rolling up her sleeves. We need someone who's going to work exceptionally hard in this moment. It's what's demanded of our player representatives, our players, myself and frankly everyone in NWSL to save our league, and I think we will. I think she's committed to that."

Recent developments have also served spotlight the NWSLPA as a voice for the players. Since its founding in 2017, the NWSL Players Association has evolved into a fully recognized and AFL-CIO affiliated union. It was just one of the many ways the union has been able provide additional resources to it's players. 

"The AFL-CIO affiliation was really important to us because we're inspired by what workers are doing right now to speak out for basic living wages, and health insurance, and paid family leave, and medical, even retirement benefits. All those are things that we are fighting for, it's the same fight," said Burke.

"Our affiliation with the AFL-CIO is a two-way street. It was not just us having the benefit of becoming part of the largest federation of labor unions in the country. There are a ton of resources that come with it. When the story broke and with everything that's happened [...] I couldn't get through it all, but I was able to reach out the AFL and say 'can I forward you these [requests], help me sift through them, and at least respond.' They do have resources for a small union like us, it's very helpful, but we're also going to show up for them."

And the players clearly see their struggle as closely related to a broader labor movement. In early September, Portland Thorns players joined the picket line with striking Nabisco workers in Oregon. Burke also revealed to "Attacking Third" that Gotham FC midfielder and player rep McCall Zerboni attended AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler's national press briefing. The NWSLPA envisions the current "No More Side Hustles" campaign as one of its efforts to get more involved in the broader fight for workers rights. 

"If you're in a labor union, if you're a worker fighting [for] the same basic rights -- we need to put our shoulder to the wheel to change labor laws in this country to make it more worker friendly -- and we want to be part of that fight," Burke said.