When Jenna Hellstrom signed with the Washington Spirit in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) before the start of the 2020 season, it was a self-described dream come true. After years of playing professional soccer in Sweden, the Canadian international felt like this was the turning point in her career.
“’You made it. That’s the league,’” she told herself.
But after one season in the NWSL, she can’t see herself ever returning.
Hellstrom said she experienced repeated verbal and emotional abuse at the hands of former Spirit coach Richie Burke. She says he would scream at her during practice and at games. He would threaten to waive her. He told her she would never play for the Canadian national team again.
She would leave practices in tears and, at the age of 25, contemplated retirement.
“It’s really hard for people, the outside world, to really understand what it was like,” Hellstrom said in a recent interview with TSN. “It's hard talking about. It’s hard for people to feel exactly how you felt during that moment with just explaining it.”
Burke was fired by the NWSL in September following an investigation by an independent third party that found he had violated the league’s anti-harassment policy. That decision came after The Washington Post reported that at least four players had left the Spirit in the past two years because of Burke’s treatment, which included racially insensitive jokes and insults at players, such as calling them “dog s**t” and “a waste of space.”
In a text message to TSN, Burke stated he has been “falsely accused by players with an axe to grind” and that any claims of verbal abuse made against him are unsubstantiated.
Hellstrom was one of the players referenced in the Post’s article but asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. In October, she posted on Instagram that she was a source in the Post story.
Now, she has chosen to come forward and share her story – a decision that she wrestled with.
“Because you also think, ‘Okay, if you come out publicly, you don't know how people are going to react to it,’” she said. “I don't think anyone should have to go through what we did. The only way for that to happen is to tell someone.
“Hopefully being a Canadian and having this story out there [allows] other Canadian athletes to feel like they have support to come forward if they're going through the same thing.”
Hellstrom, now 26, was enjoying an upswing in her career when she signed with the Spirit in December 2019. She had finished a successful stint with Kent State University in 2016, where she is the school’s all-time leader in goals (37), assists (33) and points (107).
The native of Sudbury, Ont., played for top Swedish club FC Rosengård in 2017, the same year she received her first call-up to the Canadian national team. She was named to the roster for Canada at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, although she didn’t end up seeing any time on the pitch.
After recovering from a knee injury following the World Cup, Hellstrom attended one more national team camp in early 2020 but did not receive any further invites that year.
The new opportunity with the Spirit gave her reason for optimism. She would now be playing in what many believe to be the top women’s soccer league in the world. It was a league closer to home – a league she hoped would launch her career.
“It did the complete opposite,” she said.
“It was like watching a car crash.”
Hellstrom is used to being criticized. As an elite athlete, it comes with the territory. She has played under coaches who would tell her if she made a bad pass or needed to step up her game.
But Hellstrom says Burke’s behaviour went far beyond what could be called “tough love” or constructive criticism. She began to question her mental fortitude as he would endlessly berate her.
“It started to boil over, and I just started thinking, ‘This isn't right. I've never felt this before,’” she said. “I was going home every day crying, in practice I was crying. I hated soccer. I didn't ever want to play soccer and I was really thinking about retiring after that past season.”
Hellstrom was set to make her NWSL debut at the 2020 Challenge Cup. At the last practice before the tournament opener, the team was working on corner kicks during a drill. The player Hellstrom was marking scored.
According to Hellstrom, Burke screamed at her, “If that happens in the game, you’re never going to play for me.”
One Washington player told TSN that Burke would often pick on certain people, most often bench players. As a rookie in the league, Hellstrom was fighting for her place on the team.
Another player, Kaiya McCullough, who was with the team in 2020 and was the only one to come forward publicly for the Washington Post story, said that a culture of silence existed within the team.
“You couldn't really say anything,” she told TSN. “You couldn't really react for fear of being retaliated against or for fear of it happening to you.”
Hellstrom didn’t sleep the night before her debut game. She was already feeling nervous, and Burke’s comments during training did little to quell her anxiety.
Washington led the Chicago Red Stars 2-1 in the second half as Hellstrom stood on the touchline, ready to sub in. She had played as a winger in Sweden, but the Spirit were utilizing her as a fullback. She still liked to use her speed to run up the flanks and join the attack.
According to Hellstrom, before she was substituted into the game in the 66th minute, Burke said to her, “If you make an attacking run and they score – that's on you. You're going to lose the game for us."
“I was feeling anxiety,” she said. “I never felt anxiety ever in my life. I just felt so much pressure in my chest.”
She entered the game as a left back, on the flank closest to where Burke patrolled the touchline. Shortly after her substitution, she received the ball but flubbed her touch and dribbled it out of bounds. As Burke’s relentless yelling echoed in her ears, Hellstrom became visibly shaken.
“[She] seemed to be physically struggling, like she couldn't catch her breath or something,” one player with the team told TSN.
McCullough did not dress for the game but was watching from the stands. She discussed the incident during an episode of her podcast in September without naming Hellstrom.
“He wasn't giving her any room to breathe, basically,” McCullough told TSN. “And you can see her sort of spiralling on the field. I think everybody who knew Richie knew that he wasn't going to let up.
“It was like watching a car crash – you knew what was going to happen, but there wasn't really anything you could do about it.”
Hellstrom struggled to breathe as panic set in. She was terrified of getting the ball. She would try to hide behind other players when her centre back would gain possession so that she wouldn’t receive a pass.
After the game, she had a conversation with another Spirit player. A distraught Hellstrom told her teammate that she wanted to go home and that she hoped she never started a game.
While the two players talked, Burke came back and, upon noticing the conversation, yelled at Hellstrom for taking up the other player’s time.
A source with knowledge of the situation confirmed with TSN that Burke had interrupted the players’ conversation and proceeded to scream at Hellstrom.
Hellstrom said after the other player left, the tirade from Burke continued.
“He said, ‘You’re selfish. You took [one of our players] away from our first win… You're never going to make Canada again. You're not mentally tough,’” Hellstrom said, adding that Burke berated her for close to 30 minutes following the game.
“There’s a lot more to life than soccer.”
The tipping point for Hellstrom came after the Challenge Cup. Washington had lost in the quarter-finals on July 18, and she returned home to Sudbury just over a week later. She was supposed to be back in Washington for training in early August, but while she was home her grandmother suddenly got sick.
After the doctor informed the family of the seriousness of the situation, with her grandmother being put on a ventilator, Hellstrom weighed her options. She worried that if she went to Washington, due to Canada’s regulations surrounding COVID-19 at the time, she would need to quarantine for two weeks upon her return to her home country. She wouldn’t be able to say goodbye to her grandmother and risked missing her funeral.
She decided to stay in Canada. “At the end of the day, there's a lot more to life than soccer,” she said.
She phoned Burke to tell him about her decision, a call she dreaded making. According to Hellstrom, Burke’s immediate response to the news was telling her that she would need to pay for a hotel for quarantine upon her return.
Burke likened Hellstrom’s situation to that of another player on the team, who chose to extend her vacation and thus had to pay for a hotel when she returned to the club. Hellstrom contends that Burke did not recognize the extenuating circumstances in her own situation.
“To me, that's very different, and he just didn't understand that,” she said.
The Spirit declined to comment for this story, but a source with the team told TSN that Hellstrom’s conversation with Burke “didn’t go very well.”
Hellstrom was eventually allowed to quarantine in her own room after she returned to the club following her grandmother’s passing. But this incident spurred her to go to the NWSL Players Association to report Burke.
A representative with the PA told Hellstrom that her best option was to go directly to Washington’s ownership.
At the time, the NWSLPA did not have any full-time employees and was run completely by players. Meghann Burke, a former professional player and no relation to Richie Burke, was named as the full-time executive director for the PA earlier this year.
In an email to TSN, Meghann Burke stated: “From the PA's perspective, players are and always will be in control of whether, when, and how their story gets told. It is not the role of a labor union to make a report on behalf of a player/employee, unless the player requests it. Players need to know that they can come to the PA with a concern, keep it in confidence if that is what they want, and come forward when they are ready and remain in control of how/whether/when a report is made.”
Meghann Burke, who’s also a lawyer, also pointed to the lack of an anti-harassment policy within the NWSL at the time. This year, after pressure from the PA, the league did adopt the NWSL Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment, which includes prohibitions against bullying and other abusive behaviour, and which ultimately led to Burke’s termination.
More options are available to players in the league now when it comes to reporting incidents of abuse, including an anonymous hotline, but in 2020, those avenues were not open to Hellstrom.
She had tried to speak to some of her teammates, but none were eager to take up the fight. One player told TSN that she was too nervous to challenge Burke.
According to a source, some of the veterans on the team had spoken to Burke about his behaviour. He would acknowledge them, but would also make dismissive comments, such as, “I’m not in the business of making people feel liked.”
“Who says that to a player?”
Hellstrom says she feared going above Burke’s head due to owner Steve Baldwin’s perceived close relationship with the coach. When Baldwin hired Burke in 2018, he had never coached women professionally or at the collegiate level. Burke had coached youth teams in the D.C. area, including the daughter of Larry Best, the club president.
Best also had no previous experience in professional sports when he was hired by Baldwin but was another figure in D.C. youth soccer, where he had coached Baldwin’s daughter.
Following Burke’s hiring, reports surfaced of him being verbally abusive to his former youth players. According to the Washington Post, a former top executive with the Spirit shared his concerns to both Baldwin and Best about the organization hiring Burke, but ultimately nothing was done.
“I think the ownership had way too much power,” said Hellstrom. “If you're best friends with the ownership, okay, you can be head coach, no matter what.”
In the end, Hellstrom decided not to report anything to team ownership for fear of jeopardizing her career. She estimates she missed three weeks of camp due to her family situation before returning to the team, where she featured in three games for the Spirit in the NWSL Fall Series.
As she prepared to sub into her first game back after missing time due to her grandmother’s passing, Hellstrom alleges that Burke said to her, “Okay, you were just on a six-week vacation. Let's see what you got.”
“Who says that to a player?” Hellstrom said. “It wasn't a vacation. It was watching my grandma die.”
After the season had ended, Hellstrom was still searching for ways to report what she had endured with Burke. She decided to write about her experience in the league’s end-of-the-year survey, which asks players to provide feedback on subjects such as the coaching staff.
Hellstrom said she gave detailed information about her time playing for Burke, but no one from the league ever contacted her.
When asked why the league never followed up on Hellstrom’s complaints in the survey, an NWSL spokesperson issued this statement to TSN:
“The NWSL has initiated an investigation to review historical and ongoing complaints of discrimination, harassment, or abuse, and, where necessary, reopen investigations into these complaints or initiate a new adjudication process. That includes anonymous survey results from 2020. The NWSL is committed to making the systemic and cultural changes necessary to create a safe environment for our players and staff, and this investigation is an important step in that process.”
With the lack of response from the league, Hellstrom no longer saw a place for herself in the NWSL. She asked the Spirit to waive her, which the club did in December 2020, and she soon signed with one of her former teams in Sweden, KIF Örebro.
“Players with an axe to grind”
In response to a request for comment for this story, Burke sent this text message to TSN:
“It was clear that Jenna Hellstrom didn’t like me & I couldn’t stand her either. I couldn’t wait to get her out of the club because she was a cancer in the dressing room. She’d constantly make snarky comments at training & was influencing other players negatively.”
“That’s completely untrue. Jenna was a very positive influence around everybody,” McCullough said in a message to TSN.
Burke also wrote in the same text:
“I tried to move her in several trades, but no one was interested in including her in exchange for other players. She arrived in preseason injured and had to undergo surgery through our club. She went home to Canada on two occasions & both times she extended her visit beyond what we’d agreed before she left. She couldn’t be trusted & we had no intention of bringing her back in 2021.”
“This response doesn’t surprise me at all. He constantly bullied me throughout my entire year, and this is just another form of his egotistical bullying,” Hellstrom stated in an email to TSN.
Hellstrom said she did not arrive to pre-season injured. She had a scope on her knee in the fall of 2019 after her season in Sweden and was cleared to train with Washington for the start of 2020.
She did aggravate the injury during the beginning of the pre-season, but she received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection, allowing her to play the season with no issues. The team offered her surgery after the Fall Series, which she accepted.
A source with knowledge of the situation confirmed that Hellstrom was not injured at the start of camp and that she had a PRP shot.
Regarding the second time she returned home, Hellstrom said she did so in the spring, before the Challenge Cup, when her mother was hospitalized. She requested some extra days away from the team, which were granted. A source confirmed that Hellstrom’s mother was in the hospital due to illness.
In parts of a separate text message to TSN, Burke also wrote:
“The NWSL independent investigators provided 60 pages of information in [sic] the Washington Spirt & could NOT SUBSTANTIATE ANY CLAIMS OF VERBAL ABUSE MADE BY PLAYERS IN 2020. Video evidence & text messages were included along with players [sic] interviews that did not corroborate the story told to media.”
“I’ve been hounded out of a job, lost my reputation & income & falsely accused by players with an axe to grind.”
When the league fired Burke following the independent investigation, it also stated that he cannot work with any NWSL players. When asked for a response to Burke’s comments about the league investigation, an NWSL spokesperson pointed to the original statement issued by the league.
The NWSL also indefinitely suspended the Spirit from participating in league governance matters, ruling that ownership had “failed to act in the best interest of the League.”
Before The Washington Post story containing abuse allegations against Burke was first published, the Spirit had announced in a now-deleted post that Burke was stepping down from his role as coach due to health concerns, and that he would be re-assigned to the front office.
Following the Post’s report, Baldwin released a statement saying that Burke had been suspended pending investigation.
In early October, Baldwin announced that he was stepping down as CEO and managing partner of the Spirit. However, he remains the majority owner, and there is pressure from the Spirit players and fan base for Baldwin to sell his stake in the team.
“I’ve finally found the joy in playing again”
On the pitch, Washington has been thriving in the post-Burke era. The Spirit ended the regular season on a six-game unbeaten streak and will play in the NWSL Championship for the first time since 2016.
“It just goes to show that he did affect their performance,” Hellstrom said. “We didn't want to make mistakes, because we knew how much we are going to get victimized by giving the ball away one time.”
Hellstrom is happy for her former teammates’ success but also laments the fact that none of them have reached out to her since she left the club. She said she and McCullough have stayed in touch, and that their relationship was one of the reasons she wanted to come forward publicly.
“I truly want to support Kai through it and the players that also went through it with us,” she said.
Hellstrom has also been flourishing on the pitch with her club in Sweden. She described this past year as her “best pro season yet,” finishing as KIF Örebro’s top scorer with four goals and seven points. She recently extended her contract with the team for another year.
“I came back to Sweden for a reason,” she said. “With experiences I've had in Sweden – I've been on four teams – they treat their players much better. They protect their players a lot more.”
NWSLPA executive director Meghann Burke told TSN that negotiations continue with the league over an inaugural collective bargaining agreement, and that the PA is working towards obtaining more job security for players. In the NWSL, players can be waived by their clubs, while that right does not exist in European soccer.
Hellstrom also has her sights set on a path back to the Canadian national team. She admits that while she was thrilled to see the players win gold at the Tokyo Olympics, it was also difficult for her, knowing that she was once a part of the team.
She was invited to a camp prior to the Olympics, and said she received encouragement from head coach Bev Priestman to keep putting up stats in Sweden.
“[She’s] one of the most committed Canadians I’ve spoken to,” Priestman told the media during last month’s Celebration Tour. “Any player that’s like that is high on my list.”
While Hellstrom would welcome a return to the national team, her focus right now remains on performing for her club and rediscovering her love for the game.
“I'm really happy here,” she said. “I've finally found the joy in playing again.”