About a decade ago, Phil Murphy — then a former Goldman Sachs executive — became the majority owner of Sky Blue FC, a professional women’s soccer club in New Jersey. He has remained one of the team’s co-owners ever since, even after his career took him first to the Democratic National Committee, where he served as Finance Chairman; then to the Obama administration as ambassador to Germany; and, since January, to the governor’s mansion in New Jersey.
The club first played in Women’s Professional Soccer during the league’s short lifespan between 2009 and 2011, before joining the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) when it launched in 2013. The NWSL is the top-tier professional league for women’s soccer players in the United States, and is run in part by U.S. Soccer.
For years, Murphy has publicly framed his ownership of the team as an act of charity, a money-losing venture he remains invested in only because of his daughter.
“Phil Murphy has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in this losing proposition,” a reporter for NJTV said after pouring over Murphy’s tax returns during the 2016 election. “He knew it was going to be a losing proposition, we were told, but he did it so that his daughter, who plays soccer, could see that women can play soccer at the professional level as well.”
Unfortunately, it seems that while Murphy was patting himself on the back for inspiring future generations of soccer players like his daughter, he forgot to provide running water and adequate housing for the current generation. Under Murphy’s ownership, Sky Blue FC has fallen to shambles — and their 0-13-3 record to start the 2018 season is the least of the concerns.
Let’s start with housing. In the NWSL, teams are required to provide housing for players, since the seasons only last about half a year, and most players barely make a living wage. But, according to reports, the housing that Sky Blue FC provides would not pass any meaningful inspection.
“Last year housing was a disaster,” former Sky Blue assistant coach Dave Hodgson, who left the club midway through this season, told The Equalizer. “Like one of the houses that players had to live in just should have been knocked down. Plastic bags for windows, sheets of cardboard for windows, comforters stuck in holes in the wall. I’m not exaggerating. Stuff like that’s horrific.”
Horrific indeed. While some players dealt with makeshift windows, others were forced to couch surf with roommates during the season because of a lack of provided housing. The unluckiest, though, were forced to “live with an elderly man who repeatedly made inappropriate comments to the players and made them feel uncomfortable.”
It’s unclear exactly what message Murphy is trying to send his own daughter, but it strains credulity to think he would allow her to live in those conditions. Both The Equalizer and Once A Metro say that when players complained about conditions to Sky Blue management, they were often told to find their own places to live.
Housing isn’t the only issue at Sky Blue FC, though. The team’s training facilities might be in even worse shape — players have no locker rooms, no running water, and no bathrooms, save for a porta-potty. Remember: This is the facility where the best pro women’s soccer players in the world — including 2015 and 2016 FIFA Player of the Year Carli Lloyd — are training. Suburban recreation leagues for 8-year-olds have better accommodations.
Once A Metro reports the field conditions at practice are abysmal, too. A person close to the team, who chose to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, said one of the many practice fields they use had “thick, lumpy grass and uneven terrain.” When the players complained to general manager Tony Novo about it, he allegedly did not take the problem seriously.
“He doesn’t see it. It’s like a joke to him. He thinks [the team is] frigging spoiled,” the player said.
With the decrepit conditions at home, you might think players could at least look forward to the half of their games they play on the road; alas, ownership ruins those, too:
To save money, multiple sources told The Equalizer that the team does not reimburse the players for baggage fees, finds cheaper travel by forcing the players to take very early and very late flights, provides per diems on the road that often don’t cover the cost of food, and has, at times, stopped at gas stations and fast food restaurants for meals on the road.
“Just every single trip is a debacle,” explained Hodgson. “It was a debacle last year. Our first trip to North Carolina this year, the credit card didn’t work. There was no money on the credit card. We couldn’t hire any vans. Our players were sitting at the airport for two hours. Just a debacle.”
Both investigations into the pitiful conditions at Sky Blue FC are worth a read, because the list of injustices just keeps going — one player even had her personal credit ruined because Sky Blue did not pay a medical bill for an injury she received during a game.
But the only thing more infuriating than the allegations themselves has been the team’s response to them.
Management sprang into damage control mode, beginning with steps to improve the facilities at the training facility. Step 1: renting what appears to be an old RV and pulling it onto the field.
— Allison Lee (@allibecc) July 18, 2018
In response to criticism, Murphy provided a statement to nj.com making sure to emphasize his belief that the conditions are “intolerable,” and thinks the players deserve better.
“They deserve to operate in a professional and supportive environment so they can do what they do best — play the game, inspire fans, and build community through the power of the world’s most popular sport,” Murphy said.
It’s worth noting: even though Murphy’s co-owner — Bed, Bath, & Beyond CEO Steven Tamares — is far more hands-on with the team, it’s highly unlikely that Murphy is only now hearing about these problems for the first time. A source told nj.com that many of the problems outlined this month have been well known since the team joined the NWSL in 2013; they only came to light now because former Sky Blue FC player Samantha Kerr made public statements earlier this month alluding to the club’s problems after her current team, the Chicago Red Stars, played in Jersey.
Questions of timing aside, Murphy undermined any sincerity in his statement by framing his entire investment in the league as a vanity project, which he and his wife started because it “bothered us to our core that little girls who played soccer in the U.S., unlike other countries, did not have a professional league to aspire to as they grew up and developed a love for the game.”
And just in case anyone planned to walk away thinking Murphy truly cared about the plight of professional women’s sports, he made sure to note who the real victim was in all of this: Phil Murphy’s bank account.
“The team has not been remotely financially successful and the league has struggled to stay afloat,” he said. “But our commitment to women’s soccer has not wavered and our sole motivation — ensuring women had an opportunity to play professionally in the U.S. — remains to this day.” (It’s noted, in multiple articles throughout the years, that Murphy has lost approximately $5 million on Sky Blue — a figure he clearly wants the public to know.)
Here’s the thing, Murphy: You can’t have it both ways. You can’t cast yourself as some kind of patron saint of women’s sports, and be unwilling to spend the money to actually treat the players that work for you like human beings — let alone like the best athletes in the world. (I don’t necessarily consider windows and indoor plumbing to be “athlete perks” so much as “basic living conditions.”)
It’s disrespectful, patronizing, and down-right harmful for the future of women’s pro sports. Women’s sports don’t need owners who pity them, they need owners who take pride in the product, the marketing, and the players themselves.
Most of the players who talked with The Equalizer and Once A Metro think the only way for Sky Blue FC to go forward is for Murphy to sell the team. Most of them believe he and the other minority owners are only in it for the tax write-offs, and aren’t willing to put in the time, money, and effort needed to truly make this a professional team that can compete at the top level.
In his statement to nj.com, Murphy seemed determined to stay with Sky Blue, because of his commitment to “promote the advancement of women’s soccer and harness its potential to inspire fans, especially young girls, to reach for the stars.”
But Murphy hasn’t inspired anyone with his work at Sky Blue. To his credit though, he has taught many young women an important life lesson: No matter how successful you are, there’s always going to be a powerful man in your vicinity who will boast about his feminist values while treating you like a second-class citizen.