The Long Read: NWSL Abuse, Not New or Isolated

Photo: Oregon Live

A lot has happened in the American National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the past few days.  Disturbing reports of abuse materialized, followed by several members in key leadership positions of the NWSL being ousted, all of which culminating in the postponing of ever single NWSL match this past weekend.  

The series of events started after an investigation by The Athletic was published by NWSL journalist Meg Linehan and investigative journalist Katie Strang, unveiling serious allegations by multiple players of both sexual misconduct and mental coercion by the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, which he denies.  

Riley has been coaching in the United States since the mid 80’s when he first joined Long Island University. He then moved onto club coaching and was head of several second-tier women’s teams and the Philadelphia Independence in the now defunct former American women’s first-tier league, Women’s Professional Soccer.

He started his NWSL career with the Portland Thorns, coaching the side in 2014 and 2015.  In 2016 he took charge of the Western New York Flash with whom he won the Championship. Riley moved with the team when they were sold to North Carolina and became the Courage. With the Courage he won NWSL Coach of the Year awards in 2017 and 2018.  The Courage also won the NWSL Shield given to the top club in the regular season in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and the NWSL Championship in 2018 and 2019 with Riley at the helm.

In The Athletic’s investigation, both reporters spoke to over a dozen players representing various teams that Riley has coached since 2010, as well as a number of additional sources from within the women’s game. Many felt unable to disclose their names publicly because they feared repercussions given Riley’s influence.

Former Portland Thorns teammates Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim have come out and shared detailed accounts of the abuses committed by Riley during their time under his coaching tenure.  Both women played for Riley at the Thorns, with Farrelly also having been a player of his on two teams prior to her move to Portland.  Their allegations detailed in The Athletic include several incidences of Riley pressuring Farrelly into having sex with him as well as the former coach allegedly pressuring both his then players to kiss each other at his apartment in Portland.

On top of the sexual coercion, the report outlines how Riley also allegedly abused players using mental coercion.  On one occasion, Riley informed Farrelly and Shim that their team could avoid a gruelling conditioning session if they granted inappropriate sexual requests. He also allegedly sent an unsolicited indecent picture of himself to both women, and on one occasion during a team road trip called Shim to his hotel room and greeted her in his underwear.  Farrelly, Shim and several other Thorns players from 2014-15 said Riley also made inappropriate remarks about their weight and sexual orientation.

Shim would go on to report the multiple incidents at the end of the 2015 season, which are more numerous and detailed in The Athletic article. She informed Thorn’s HR director, Thorn’s owner Merritt Paulson, and the NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush.  Riley was placed on administrative leave by the Thorns, and upon review subsequent terminated.  Upon his departure the club made what they describe as an “opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract.”

The investigation whose findings were shared with the NWSL league office found “violations of Thorns policies” but “no unlawful activity.”  Riley was hired several months later by NWSL club Western New York Flash.  Merritt Paulson, the Thorns majority owner has since apologized in an open letter for his “role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”

Riley has since been fired by the Courage.  US Soccer has suspended Riley’s coaching license and FIFA has also announced they are opening an investigation into the alleged abuse.  Sadly, this is only the most recent reported incident of alleged maltreatment of players in the NWSL.

A number of other disturbing events have overshadowed America’s premier women’s league over the past few years.  The most recent, apart from the Riley allegations, comes from the Washington Spirit.  In August 2021, an official club statement from the Spirit stated that their head coach Richie Burke was stepping down citing “health reason” and being moved to the front office.

Only after a subsequent Washington Post article was published describing the coach subjecting his players to emotional and verbal abuse, sometimes of a threatening, homophobic and racist nature, and creating an environment described as “unbelievably volatile” was Burke suspended by the club as they investigated the matter.

Additional reporting by the Post‘s Molly Hensley-Clancy also detailed how the toxic environment led to a number of players choosing to leave the Spirit. One player, Kaiya McCullough choose to ultimately leave the sport altogether.  Burke has since been fired by the Spirit.

Perhaps the most troubling part of the situation  is that similar allegations of homophobic language and verbal abuse were made of Burke during his time as a youth coach prior to his hiring by the Spirit.  Burke was hired without any previous professional or NCAA coaching experience.  Moreover, Burke was not the first coach to depart the club in the last two years after allegations of inappropriate conduct.

Burke’s former assistant coach at the Spirit Tom Torres left the club last year to “pursue other interests” according the Washington Spirit‘s statement at the time.  However, The Athletic has since reported that according to multiple sources his intoxicated and inappropriate behaviour towards some players at a party after the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup was what prompted the departure.

Reports of some members of the Washington Spirit coaching staff are just part of the scandals engulfing the Washington based club.  The toxic culture at the club did not limit itself to the field, with a culture of fear and intimidation allegedly existing in the Spirit’s offices for years.  Four women told the Post that the culture was “an old boy’s club.”  Two others described it as “misogynistic.”

In the last three months a third of female front office staffers listed on the team’s website have departed the Spirit including the President of Business Operations Lindsey Barenz.

Following this the club hired former USMNT and DC United player and subsequent head coach Ben Olsen to be the new President of Team Operations.  While Olsen is well respected in the DC soccer community, the hire was called into question as Olsen has no experience in women’s soccer or front office experience.  According to the Post’s Steven Goff, the hire was done without the involvement of one of the two co-owners, Michele Kang.

The Spirit is also currently undergoing a very public battle between its two co-owners Michele Kang, co-owner since 2020, and Steve Baldwin, owner since 2018 and co-owner since 2020.  (Kang and Baldwin are two of the three principal owners).

Fans from both the Spirit and across the league have been active in a campaign for the last two months to force Baldwin out, whom they see as the source of most of the troubling hires and negative culture.  According to a letter sent to investors on September 27, 2021 from Kang, Baldwin had previously agreed to sell his shares to Kang on August 13, but backed out in early September.

Photo: Oregon Live (including feature image)

The NWSL board has since removed the Washington Spirit from its board of governors according to the Equalizer and suspended Burke from the league.   The board gave the Spirit ownership 14 days as of September 28, 2021 to respond.  Baldwin has since stepped down from his role as CEO and Managing Partner of the Spirit with newly appointed Ben Olsen taking over his roles.  The Post’s Hensley-Clancy further reported that the decision came after the entirety of the Spirit players squad wrote a letter asking Baldwin to leave.

“We do not feel like we can recover from all that has been revealed in 2021,” the letter, signed by 27 players, says. “Under your leadership, the trust and the faith in the organization has broken.”

Prior to Baldwin’s ownership of the Spirit, Megan Rapinoe and former Washington Spirit players Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger all came forward with accusations of homophobic behaviour from previous Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch.  Lynch sold his majority to share to Baldwin in 2018.

Lynch and Baldwin are not the only current or former owners to be accused of creating a toxic culture and inappropriate actions towards players and staff. Former NWSL club Utah Royals’ owner Dell Loy Hansen, who owned the franchise between 2018 and 2020 prior to its sale, sold the team after accusations and MLS investigations into cases of racism surfaced.

The Royal’s parent company Real Salt Lake’s chief business officer Andy Carroll was also accused of contributing to a toxic culture at the Royals, through alleged misogynistic and sexist comments and behaviours.  According to reports by SBNation, Carroll “requested that (female) players be posed with the specific purpose of making them look sexy.”

Sky Blue FC, now rebranded and named Gotham FC, was long embroiled in controversy due to inadequate and inappropriate travel conditions, a lack of training facilities, a stadium with no showers and severe and fluctuating housing problems.  While the issues were first made public back in 2018 by SBNation,  these severe player welfare problems had reportedly existed for a number of years.

Former Sky Blue player Nadia Nadim, who was with the club from 2014 to 2015, has since come out and accused the club of reneging on a contractual agreement that was to keep her in New Jersey for a specified amount of time and of forging her signature in a contract option extension.  According to Nadim’s statement, the NWSL did not want to hear any evidence of this serious and illegal action.

While standards at the club have since progressed, the accusations were troubling even back then, especially considering one of the owners of the team was and continues to be Phil Murphy, a former US Ambassador to Germany and the current Governor of the state where Sky Blue/Gotham FC is based New Jersey.

Part of the reason for the increasing of standards, elimination of problems and betterment of player welfare at the club in the last few years was attributed to the hiring by Gotham FC of then General Manager Alyse La Hue.  However, La Hue was fired abruptly in July after an NWSL investigation revealed a violation of the league’s anti-harassment policy, something which La Hue denies.

Prior to 2021 there were no specific protections for the league’s players in the NWSL’s player handbook. Had anti-harassment policies been put in place in 2015 when Shim’s sexual and mental coercion allegations were first reported to the Thorns and the NWSL, Riley may not have been able to be subsequently rehired in the league.

Arguably, these new anti-harassment policies are a good first step in increased player protections.  However, the results of the anti-harassment investigations and firings are kept confidential.

While we are not speculating with regards to the nature of the dismissal of personal fired under this new policy, we believe it is important to point out that the only reason that the public, and more importantly, NWSL players, and staff were made aware of what had transpired with Riley and Burke is because present and former players and staff anonymously and officially spoke up.

On top of La Hue’s dismissal, former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly was abruptly fired by the club in early September “for cause”.  No specific reason or clarification was given by the club as to his dismissal and no link to the anti-harassment policy was specified.

OL Reign Head Coach Farid Benstiti resigned from his position suddenly last July with no official reason given. The Seattle Times now reports that OL Reign’s minority owner and CEO Bill Predmore, who originally hired Benstiti and thanked him upon his departure, has come forward in the past week and clarified that Benstiti resigned after being suspended when allegations of disparaging comments about player’s nutrition and fitness came out.  The Post‘s The Washingon Post reports that an official complaint was made by a player “of verbal abuse” at the hands of Benstiti.

This was not the first incidence of Benstiti making negative comments about a player’s appearances.  USWNT and Portland Thorns player Lindsey Horan, who had played for Benstiti at PSG prior to his hiring by OL Reign, had told the New York Times of verbal comments about her appearance during her time in Paris.  According to Horan, Benstiti went as far as to bench her until she lost weight even though Horan had proven to be one of the fittest players in the team in a recent fitness test.  These allegations came to light around the time of his hiring as an NWSL coach.

Photo: @lindseyhoran10

In total this year, half of all NWSL clubs have had a coach or general manager dismissed “for cause”.  This is a startling and disturbing amount.  The pattern of firing of so many individuals in positions of power, who are in charge of players, staff and their careers, as well as the original hiring of so many coaches who had reported histories of abusive conduct shows that the NWSL vetting and hiring process for coaches, managers and staff does not adequately protect players from abusive environments and ensure good league governance.

The National Women’s Soccer League Players’ Association have accused the league of lacking “basic and fundamental protections that ensure dignity at work” and emphasised that “players demand greater control over their lives and careers.”  The NWSL Player’s Association recently registered as an affiliate with the AFL-CIO and is the primary voice and advocate of the players.  They are in contract negotiations for the player’s first bargaining agreement with the league.

According to Meghann Burke, the executive director of the NWSL Player’s Association, players have been active in the negotiation process with high turnouts at bargaining sessions. Burke stated that the NWSL team owners, who also run the league, have yet to attend a single bargaining session. Once the first collective bargaining agreement is accepted, it will be the first agreement in the NWSL’s history that was not written up by the league itself and imposed upon the players.

With the release of The Athletic article, Lisa Baird, the NWSL’s commissioner responded last week with a statement saying, “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 player’s 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.”

Shortly after this statement, the NWSL shared that they had accepted Baird’s resignation. It has now been reported that both Baird and the NWSL’s General counsel Lisa Levine were in fact ousted from their roles by the league’s board of directors.  The NWSL has since announced that a three-woman executive committee made up of Amanda Duffy (Orlando Pride), Angie Long (KC NWSL) and Sophie Sauvage (OL Reign) will temporarily oversee the league’s front office operations while the league searches for a new, permanent commissioner.

The league is also launching “several critical investigative and reform initiatives to protect players and staff, and the environments in which athletes live, train, and compete to give athletes the agency and ability to safely report misconduct of any form.”

Players who have sacrificed to build this league and those who have suffered because of lack of oversight deserve better.  Most important though, victims need to have a safe, impartial and accountable space to report improper and abusive conduct.   The bravery of those victims who came forward, despite this avenue not existing, needs to commended.  For their sake, for those who have yet to come forward and for those who could face abuse in the future, the NWSL needs to do better.

Written in collaboration between Stuart Barker and Catherine Paquette

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