NWSL abuse is a product of systemic failure

Since its inception in 2012, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has enjoyed great success. However, its momentum came to a screeching halt when a Sept. 30 report by The Athletic revealed years of alleged sexual abuse toward players in the highest level of women’s soccer in the country. The fallout from this article trickled through the world of professional soccer and showed that institutions must do better to not only protect women but also enact meaningful measures of reform that do not shield abusers from their wrongdoings. 

The allegations themselves were years in the making, but The Athletic’s article, “‘This guy has a pattern’: Amid institutional failure, former NWSL players accuse prominent coach of sexual coercion,” burst open the floodgates to what has been two weeks of freefall for the league. 

Written by Meg Linehan, the story named two former players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, who said they were abused by North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, one of soccer’s most decorated coaches, while playing for the Portland Thorns FC, one of the NWSL’s most successful clubs. 

Mana Shim practicing for the Portland Thorns FC. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

At the time, both women wanted Riley to be investigated for his actions, but owners refused because they had no reason to suspect that anything was amiss. Additionally, there were no policies in place with the Thorns FC’s human resources department that allowed them to file complaints. Further investigations showed that both the Thorns FC and the league quietly handled the matter, but those revelations did not come to light until Linehan’s story was published. 

In addition to Farrelly and Shim, Linehan spoke with more than a dozen players from every team Riley had coached since 2010. Every player noted Riley’s pattern of sexual abuse as well as multiple comments about players’ physical appearance and sexuality, allegations that Riley has repeatedly denied. Some players recall being forced to sit on Riley’s lap during car rides while Farrelly and Shim said that Riley made the players kiss in front of him in exchange for the team not having to do running drills at their next practice. 

The Courage fired Riley the same day the article was published, and the U.S. Soccer Federation suspended Riley’s coaching license, but these reactions were far too lenient as they allowed all of the involved parties to absolve themselves of any wrongdoings. Then-NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird released a statement which said that she “was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic this morning.” She noted that “the league, in concert with the North Carolina Courage, has reacted swiftly in response to these new allegations, and former head coach Paul Riley has been terminated.” As it turned out, her words were nothing more than standard public relations jargon. 

Immediately after Baird’s statement, the Orlando Pride’s Alex Morgan posted screenshots of emails between Farrelly and Baird which indicated that the latter knew more than she initially let on. The OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe also criticized Bair and took to Twitter saying, “Never once during this whole time was the right person protected. Not Mana, not Sinead, not us.” She added that Baird’s “statement is beyond disrespectful.”

The following day would go down as one of the NWSL’s most hectic times with the league calling off all of that weekend’s scheduled games “given the gravity of the events of the last week.” FIFA and U.S. Soccer announced that they were starting their own investigations into Riley, Baird resigned as commissioner, and league general counsel Lisa Levine was dismissed from her position. 

Merritt Paulson, majority owner of the Thorns, penned an open letter four days after Linehan’s story where he recounted the Thorns’ decision to part ways with Riley at the end of the 2015 season. The sexual abuse allegations were a factor in the club’s decision, but Merritt wrote that the organzation “made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy.” Paulson also deeply regretted the club’s “role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”  

Paulson is right; there is systemic failure plaguing women’s professional soccer. Throughout their operations, the NWSL has touted itself as “the best women’s soccer league in the world,” but behind the scenes infractions rebuff these claims. Abuse did not start or end with the disgraced Riley; it has been woven into the organization’s fabric and just recently been made public knowledge.

In the past, the Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy reported that former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke had verbally abused his players and made racially insensitive remarks on multiple occasions. At least four players cited Burke as their reason for leaving the team. Hensley-Clancy also reported on the Spirit club as a whole and noted that players and staffers “had been subjected to a workplace culture that was toxic for women and, many said, for women of color.” 

Over the summer, the OL Reign parted ways with head coach Farid Benstiti after he made an inappropriate comment toward players in a training session. At the onset of Benstiti’s hiring, the soccer community collectively scratched their heads as Lindsey Horan spoke in a series of 2019 interviews, saying that Benstiti had criticized her weight and was brutal during her time at Paris Saint-Germain, a French professional football club that he had previously coached. 

Abuse did not start or end with the disgraced Riley; it has been women into the organization’s fabric and just recently been made public knowledge.

James salazar

After Baird’s resignation, the NWSL appointed a new executive committee to oversee front office operations until a new commissioner is found. Composed of the Orlando Pride’s executive vice president Amanda Duffy, Angie Long of KC NWSL, and OL Reign board member Sophie Sauvage, the trio feels like a massive oversight on the league’s part as all three positions went to white women who are affiliated with the league’s front offices in some capacity. 

Matches resumed Oct. 6 with players taking a stand against the league’s failure to protect them. In the first match of the night between the Washington Spirit and Gotham FC, players on the field and on their respective benches all stopped play and walked to midfield to link arms in a circle during the sixth minute. The NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) announced that players in the two other games — the North Carolina Courage-Racing Louisville FC match and the Portland Thorns FC-Houston Dash match — would follow suit in a similar fashion. 

Amidst all of the chaos, the NWSL’s future hangs in the air with no clear trajectory in sight, but this is par for the course when it comes to letting issues fester for so long. I do not believe it is fair to chalk this scandal up to failure, shutter operations, and move on. Despite their repeated financial and physical neglect, NWSL players continued sacrificing better-paying jobs for a chance at their shot of playing professionally in the U.S., and their efforts ended up building the league into what it is today. Would it be fair to wipe the slate clean for abusers and their enablers while erasing the contributions of those who worked under adversity?  

The NWSL cannot look at this instance, or any other matter, in the accuser(s) versus accused binary. Gone are the days of quietly shuffling a coach between teams until they are no longer considered a threat to a person’s safety and well-being or slapping an offender on the wrist and claiming that nothing egregious happened. 

Sinead Farrelly also spoke with The Athletic and detailed abuse she faced while playing under Riley. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Many within the NWSL have called this point in time a “shut up and listen to the players” moment, and they are right to address it as such, especially when players have made it known that they will no longer let the league abuse its power. As we have seen time and time again, it is up to victims and the community at large to affect change because those with power are not keen on changing a system that works to their benefit. 

The NWSL must be more transparent with their hiring practices, give players meaningful and thorough policies that put their safety before anything else, and distribute power so that it does not squarely rest in the hands of abusers and their enablers. True to their fanaticism, NWSL team supporters have protested before games, amplified players’ voices on social media, and are calling on the front office to address the NWSLPA’s demands. Ridding the league of sexual abuse is about so much more than soccer. It is about ensuring that no woman is forced to accept systemic injustices as they are instead of questioning why issues got to a certain point. 

Unless internal short sights are explicitly addressed, the NWSL machine will keep turning with the same cogs that have churned out negligence and mistreatment for the league’s most vulnerable and poorly protected members. In the meantime, the soccer world will continue reminding those in charge that everyone is watching their next move closely.

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