NWSL picking up the pieces following scandal

Female athletes often coached and managed by men, are often subject to verbal, physical and mental abuse. On Sept. 30, The Athletic released a story about prominent National Women’s Soccer League coach Paul Riley, detailing abuse and coercion which  players endured under his leadership.

The article sent shockwaves through the league and the public, leading his team, The North Carolina Courage, to fire  him shortly  after The Athletic’s article was published. Riley was let go from his head coaching position with the Portland Thorns in 2015 for “violations of team policy.” Was the NWSL complicit in allowing Riley to continue coaching after allegations of abuse were made against him?

Commissioner Lisa Baird “was shocked and disgusted to read new allegations reported.” However, Alex Morgan, prominent Orlando Pride and Olympic soccer player, shared emails that highlighted that Baird was in fact informed about the abuse. 

In these emails, Baird responded to former Charlotte Thorns player, Sinead Farrelly’s email outlining abuse she saw and experienced in 2015. This was Riley’s second year as head coach for the Charlotte Thorns. Farrelly was also inquiring about steps the league was taking regarding the reports she made in 2015. Baird responded with “the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion. Unfortunately, I cannot share any additional details.” This email exchange solidified Morgan’s claims that “The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations.”

Stories of abuse across the league have come out this season. Two other head coaches, Richie Burke of the Washington Spirit and Christy Holly of Racing Louisville, were both fired for verbal abuse of their players. Farid Bensini, of OL Reign, resigned after verbal abuse allegations were brought against him. 

We not only see  this exposure of a toxic work environment from  coaches in  the league, but in  front offices, too. NY/NJ Gotham FC General Manager Alyse LaHue was fired for violating the anti-harassment policy, and Steve Baldwin, owner of the Washington Spirit, is under fire after an investigation found he created a “culture of of harassment and toxicity for women within the club”, according to Just Women’s Sports.

The story is devastatingly familiar. USA Gymnastics and the FBI stood by as Larry Nassar, team doctor for USA and Michigan State athletics, sexually abused over 100 girls and women. After a former Chicago Blackhawks player was sexually assaulted by a coach, the GM and president agreed to not go to the police, instead allowing the abuser to coach the U-18 team. No matter the player’s sex, age or fame , all are vulnerable to the power of these institutions.

This is larger than one man. So many people had to stay silent in order for abuse to occur. 

Athletes are advocating for systemic change for fair and equitable treatment, as well as protection from the exploitation all too common in sports. They are calling out the practice of suffering in silence in hopes abusers will have no place for them in the future of their sports. 

Just hours after the story on  Riley broke, he was fired. A day later, Baird resigned. Games were called off for the weekend. The league has formed a three-woman-executive committee in her place. Investigations have been opened by the NWSL, US Soccer and FIFA, the governing body of soccer.  

While the swiftness of consequence is impressive, many people who knew of the abuse remain in charge of these players’ wellbeing. Maybe this time these investigations will be done correctly, and justice will finally be served. It seems the moment of reckoning has come.