Merritt Mathias was drafted by Kansas City FC in 2013, the inaugural season of the Women’s National Football League (NWSL). The former Texas A&M quarterback won the title with KC in 2014. The following season, she was traded to the Seattle Reign and helped lead the team to the 2015 NWSL Shield. Then, in 2018, former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley convinced Matthias to join his club. For Matthias, now 32, who has known Riley since the beginning of her professional career, the exchange offer to join Courage seemed like the perfect opportunity to take her game to the next level. That same year, the quarterback recorded an assist in the championship game as Courage won the title.

In 2019, Mathias suffered a knee injury that forced her out of the game for a year and a half. She returned to the game in 2021, but her on-pitch aspirations were shattered following a report in Athletic detailing allegations of sexual harassment and coercion against Riley spanning multiple teams and leagues since 2010. In her own words, Matias describes how she went from doubting her place in professional football following the allegations to channeling her energy to help ratify the NWSL. the world’s first collective bargaining agreement. (An independent investigation has uncovered systematic abuse and misconduct in women’s professional football in the United States. The report, by former Acting Attorney General Sally K. Yates and released Monday, is based on more than 200 interviews and reveals the US-run NWSL. The Football Federation does not was able to provide a safe environment for the players.)

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S WEKA out of 5, football was something I could turn to when I was going through hard times.

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But when I was in my sophomore year of college at the University of North Carolina, for the first time in my life, football wasn’t such a safe space. I fought surrounded and with the coaching staff. And while I was filled with stress, anxiety, and feelings of embarrassment that my college career wasn’t going the way I planned, I couldn’t articulate any of it because I didn’t allow myself to really feel it. I asked myself. I doubted my love for the sport. I asked everything.

“What am I if I don’t play football?” I remember asking myself.

I couldn’t imagine my life without football. I moved to Texas A&M after the 2009 season and it wasn’t until that moment that I realized there was power in my decision to leave a situation that didn’t fit. There was strength in my decision to move forward and trust myself.

When I returned to North Carolina to play professionally for the Courage in 2018, I felt it was time to return to the state where I first lost myself and questioned my football career.

Three years later, in 2021, even though I felt like I had gained tremendous self-knowledge, I again experienced a question period. And I will need to use everything I’ve learned about myself over the past decade to navigate what’s to come next.

Around March 2021, at the start of last season, I was excited. After recovering from knee surgery, I was ready to play for Courage. It’s been 17 months since I’ve played the game. Anticipation filled me. But a few months after the start of the season, I quickly realized that everything was not going as planned. I was in pain all the time. I managed to maintain dominance on the field, but it wasn’t on me. I started to fight again.

Then, in September 2021, The Athletic published an article about sexual abuse in the NWSL. I was disgusted when I read that former players accused my then head coach Paul Riley of sexual abuse spanning multiple teams and leagues since 2010.

Riley has been in my life for ten years. I had a personal relationship with him that started before I joined the NWSL. I dined at his house several times. I went to parties at his house. He knew me personally, off the football field. He had a huge impact on my career. I also experienced Riley’s control and power over his players, especially off the pitch. Riley has never been sexually abused. But I had to process it all, and it was hard to resist the truth of who he was. At that moment, any light in me associated with football went out. I was very dark inside. Everything seemed heavy.

Football became what I had to do. It was my job. I had to show up. Every day on my way to work, I was full of anxiety. At the time, I struggled to find joy in the game. I looked around and all my teammates and competitors were struggling along the way. It was terrible. It was scary to go out and play. It also seemed like the least important thing at the time. Like, “What’s the point? Why am I here now?

A couple of months after the allegations surfaced (and Riley was fired), my team made the playoffs in early November and we faced the Washington Spirit. I woke up that morning and said to myself, “OK, you can do it. It’s 90 minutes. You can do that. You can get through this.” When we fought on the field, I couldn’t help thinking about when it would all end. The Spirit beat us 1-0 and I was physically and mentally relieved when the whistle blew.

After that, I began to see a psychotherapist regularly. She helped me get through all my emotions. I felt betrayed and sad. I went from being numb to feeling it all. Much of what I experienced seemed contradictory, but I had to come to terms with it all. The hardest part of this journey was understanding and accepting the fact that I would never speak to this person again. Because of my values, the person I want to be in this world, and the way I keep people in my life that are important to me, I could never let that person back into my life.

And I wanted to turn that pain into strength. I wanted to find myself again. And I wanted to come out of this experience stronger than ever.

UNTIL 2021 When the season started, I decided to join the collective bargaining committee of the NWSL Players Association. I’ve never been one to refrain from speaking the truth or sharing my opinion, so it seemed to me that I could be part of the CBA committee.

I couldn’t represent my teammates and players if I wasn’t emotionally honest with myself and what I was going through. The healing process became part of my role on the committee and I found a new purpose that felt bigger than anything I had ever been a part of in the football world. All the emotions associated with scandals and insults in the league will be channeled into change. We wanted the best for future NWSL players, and we kept asking for the best.

On the eve of the training camp for the 2022 season, we made history. Just a few months after allegations of abuse swept through our league, we ratified the first ever CBA in the NWSL. After more than 40 sessions of negotiations, the NWSLPA secured benefits including a 60% increase in the minimum wage to $35,000, an added freedom of action structure, paid mental health leave, eight weeks of paid parental leave, and professional minimum staffing requirements for medical professionals. workers.

I started my professional career in 2013, the founding year of the NWSL, and I never thought I could bring about the change we did with the CBA. There have been many highlights in my career, but what I am most proud of was being involved in CBA negotiations. Months after feeling completely lost in the league, I found myself again. I found my strength and purpose.

The most difficult moments in my playing career over the past few years could break me. I had to learn the difference between being able to do difficult things and not letting this sport and the world harden me. Football and NWSL allowed me to fully discover who I am. And as a result, for the first time in my life, I was truly inspired by my own story.