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  • Writer's pictureSavannah Miscik

The NWSL Free Agency Dispute, Explained

“While the players wish this historic moment was purely one of celebration…”

NWSL fans are used to hearing phrases like this to preface any good news. This time it’s in reference to the release of the inaugural list of NWSL free agents on August 25. The NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) put out the list with an interesting note at the bottom: “[asterisk] denotes contested free agency.” Out of 47 players listed, 22 have the asterisk by their name. What is there to be contested with the NWSL? One key definition, to be exact.

Free agency was guaranteed by the new collective bargaining agreement ratified before the 2022 season started, although it appears to be a much murkier definition than either side intended. To be a free agent, a player must have six years in the NWSL and their contract (also known as an SPA) must be expiring. The conflict between the league and the players association about free agency boils down to one question: what constitutes the end of a SPA if it has a club-held option year with it?

The league contends that the extra year is part of the original contract and therefore it must be played before a athlete can become a free agent. The NWSLPA sees it differently. To them, the option year is a separate extension of the SPA rather than a part of it. Under the PA’s logic, players who have not served their option year but are at the end of their original contracts should be considered free agents. Because this clash of heads affects players directly, the PA moved quickly.

“Immediately upon learning of NWSL’s position, the Players Association filed a grievance to enforce these players’ rights to free agency. Once the NWSL formally denies the Players Association’s grievance, the Players Association intends to move to expedited arbitration,” the NWSLPA wrote in a statement. The NWSL confirmed that the arbitration will commence in September in their own statement on the matter.

Players who have been with the league since literal day one, such as Christine Sinclair and Jasmyne Spencer, will not receive free agent status under the NWSL’s definition of free agency.

Christine Sinclair, who has played for the Portland Thorns as part of the NWSL since its first season in 2013, will not receive free agent status. Photo by Ray Terrill / CC BY-SA 2.0

Lauren “Lu” Barnes, another player who has been in the NWSL since its formation, said in the NWSLPA statement, “Free agency would give my generation of players a freedom that we’ve never had - the ability to self-determine our future and advocate for our true value…It’s imperative that the league does right by those that have given so much to it.”

Time will tell whether these players will be able to receive that status. But right now, this is a deeply personal dispute for them and for players across the league.


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