Explaining the NWSL scandal sending shockwaves across women’s pro soccer

Explaining the NWSL scandal sending shockwaves across women’s pro soccer

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), one of the top women’s professional soccer leagues in the world, has been rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct, inappropriate and homophobic comments, and other questionable behavior as detailed in a report by The Athletic .

The revelations have resulted in a coach’s termination, the resignation of the league’s commissioner, an owner resigning as CEO of his club, other owners penning open letters, a team GM placed on administrative leave, and the opening of several investigations by different governing bodies as the women’s soccer community processes the fallout and begins to outline a path forward.

In the  Sept. 30 story published in The Athletic , two players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, accused long-time professional women’s soccer coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and harassment. Riley, who denied the allegations to The Athletic, was let go from his position as North Carolina Courage’s head coach hours after the report was published. A day later NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned .

MORE: NWSL players stop matches in demonstration, outline demands

Current and former players spoke out about the accusations, offering support to the two players who stepped forward and demanding accountability and action from the NWSL. The league proceeded to cancel the weekend slate of matches  on Oct. 1-2 as it met with its players regarding the next steps to be taken. The first matches played following The Athletic report came on Oct. 6 and they featured demonstrations from the players which were followed up by a list of eight demands pertaining to the investigations and the hiring of a new commissioner.

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NWSL leadership and the league’s owners have come under fire for their handling of the case exposed by The Athletic, leading to questions about the league’s culture and its ability to protect its players. Riley was rehired in the NWSL a mere five months after a 2015 investigation by the Portland Thorns found breaches in club policy that led to the decision not to renew his contract. Then earlier this year, Farrelly and Shim also filed formal complaints requesting a new league investigation into Riley, but their claims didn’t result in any action from the NWSL.

Below is the latest on the scandal which surfaced just days after the head coach of one of the other 10 clubs, Washington’s Richie Burke, was fired for cause amid alleged misconduct that led one former Spirit player, Kaiya McCullough, to speak out and the team owner to resign from his role as CEO though the players are asking him to sell the team. Also, OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti resigned in July after he was the subject of a player complaint, according to the Washington Post. 

What is being alleged?

In The Athletic story, Farrelly alleges Riley coerced her into having sex in 2011 when she was a member of WPS club Philadelphia Independence and later in 2012 as a member of the New York Fury of the WPSL Elite league. The report goes on to detail other instances of inappropriate conduct and comments by Riley, including a 2015 incident with the NWSL’s Portland Thorns in which, according to the players, he allegedly pressured teammates Farrelly and Shim to kiss in order to avoid a conditioning drill for the team. Riley denied the accusations in a statement to The Athletic calling them “completely untrue.”

Shim filed a complaint with the Thorns’ front office at the end of the 2015 season and, after an investigation, Portland didn’t renew Riley’s contract. Thorns owner Merritt Paulson told The Athletic that the results of the probe were shared with the NWSL league office though the details were not made public. Riley was hired a few months later by the NWSL’s Western New York Flash, a club that later relocated to North Carolina and became the Courage. 

After the NWSL adopted a new anti-harassment policy earlier in 2021, The Athletic reported that both Farrelly and Shim requested the league conduct a new investigation into Riley; however, the league’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, informed them that the 2015 complaint was “investigated to conclusion.”

Farrelly and Shim discussed these allegations in a nationally televised segment on NBC’s Today Show:

FIFA, U.S. Soccer, NWSL open investigations

All three bodies are launching investigations into the allegations detailed in The Athletic. 

FIFA: The world governing body announced on Oct. 1 that its judicial arm is “actively looking into the matter and have opened a preliminary investigation .”

U.S. Soccer Federation: The national governing body has retained a former U.S. attorney and Deputy Attorney General of the USA, Sally Q. Yates, to conduct an independent investigation. “She will be given full autonomy, access and the necessary resources to follow the facts and evidence wherever they may lead.”

NWSL: The embattled league will now be led by a three-person executive committee while it seeks a new commissioner. It has retained its own firm , Covington & Burling, to oversee investigations and to make recommendations for reform. Its scope will include reopening the 2015 investigation into Riley and any other past complaints made in the NWSL.

What have the NWSL and its clubs said? 

Hours after The Athletic article was published, the North Carolina Courage terminated Riley and U.S. Soccer suspended his coaching license:

Then NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird issued a statement announcing a series of steps being taken by the league in response to the report, including mandating training and background checks for team and league staff, and the introduction of a system to allow for anonymous reporting.

The Portland Thorns issued a statement clarifying the club’s actions at the end of Riley’s tenure. The team didn’t bring Riley back in 2015, but the details of the investigation were not publicly revealed until The Athletic’s report. The club apologized to the players “for our role in the abuse they detailed.” 

Days later, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, penned an open letter in which he stated: “I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer … Ultimately, we could have done more.”

On Oct. 6, Thorns players made public a set of demands to the club, including the placement of GM Gavin Wilkinson on administrative leave until the investigations are concluded. The club followed through:

North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik also penned an open letter of his own in which he explained Riley’s employment by the club, while also apologizing “for our part in the failure to create an environment where players feel safe and comfortable coming forward.” He says that the club was assured that Riley “was in good standing” despite the investigation during his time with Portland.

“When we bought the Western NY Flash in 2017, we conducted due diligence to continue with Mr. Riley and the coaching staff. We were made aware of an investigation into Mr. Riley’s behavior in 2015 and were subsequently assured that he was in good standing. During his employment with the Courage, we had no knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment or coercion. When we learned of the horrific allegations in last week’s reporting, we took those seriously and immediately terminated Mr. Riley.”

As part of the NWSL’s match cancellation on Oct. 1, Baird also took “full responsibility for the role I have played” prior to tendering her resignation:

“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now. Our entire league has a great deal of healing to do, and our players deserve so much better. We have made this decision in collaboration with our players association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue.”

Baird also issued another statement post-resignation to NBC News in which she said: “The women who play our game deserve to be protected and I am proud of what I did to make the League better.”

Current & former players speak out

Several high-profile players and former stars have voiced their support for the players who stepped forward, and demanded the league do more to protect them in the future.

U.S. national team star Alex Morgan, who played a key role in the push for the NWSL to institute its anti-harassment policy, shared a Twitter thread, including an email exchange between Farrelly and league commissioner Baird.

Megan Rapinoe, Meghan Klingenberg, and former U.S. women’s national team stars Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy had strong words for the league, its owners and former commissioner: “Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll,” wrote Rapinoe.

The players’ union, the NWSL Players Association, was quick with its response to the report by The Athletic, leading the charge to cancel the matches on Oct. 1-2. It also provided players an anonymous hotline for reporting abuse and made a sports psychologist available to them. 

Former U.S. women’s national team star Christie Pearce Rampone deferred her Hall of Fame induction in light of the news:

The president of Racing Louisville Brad Estes and Gotham FC head coach Scott Parkinson joined the chorus of voices demanding change:

Portland Timbers players were among the first in Major League Soccer to make public their support:


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