​​Student Opinion: Abuse within National Women’s Soccer League


By Kayla Ngai

Abuse allegations have come out within the United States’ National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). In 2021, an investigation was put in motion regarding the “systemic” misconduct in the league and “US Soccer said it would move immediately to implement reforms.” 


This started with Paul Riley, the head coach of North Carolina Courage, who was fired that year. Riley has coached women’s teams since 2006 and adamantly denies “the majority” of the sexual allegations against him. Despite Riley’s denial, the evidence against him is overwhelming. Multiple players spanning multiple teams have begun to call out Paul Riley’s despicable behavior. 


According to ESPN, the Portland Thorns fired Riley in 2015 but did not disclose his misconduct to the public. Thus, Paul Riley was “quickly…hired by another NWSL team.” By hiding information about an abuser’s actions, the Portland Thorns actively aided in the perpetuation of the misdemeanors in the league. 


Riley has a pattern of acting indecently toward the players he has coached. Former Portland Thorns players recollected that Riley would send unsolicited lewd photos, verbally accost them, force alcohol on them, and sexually harass the players.


After the allegations became public, the league commissioner Lisa Baird received much criticism about how she handled the situation. Baird exclaims that she is proud of her actions: “You kind of take that private moment to yourself and you kind of ask yourself, did you do the right thing with the information you had at the time?… And I’m pretty clear that I did.” 


Given the multitude of players speaking out against her, Baird’s response was proper as she recognized her “unconvincing explanations of the institutional failures that blocked players from reporting abusive behavior.” 


Baird actually claims that she had not heard of reports of sexual misconduct until September 30, 2021, but Mana Shim (Portland Thorns FC) and Sinead Farrelly (Boston Breakers) emailed Lisa Baird directly as early as April 21, 2021. As a result of Riley’s infractions, many NWSL games were suspended, Lisa Baird resigned, and players banded together in support of each other. 


Sally Yates from King & Spalding LLP conducted interviews with over 200 people to aid with the investigation. Afterward, Yates iterates the many instances of verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse that have occurred at the hands of Riley, spanning many teams and affecting many victims.  Not only is their abuse present, but Yates alleges that “abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer.” Verbally offensive coaching has been normalized so it makes the relationship and limits between coaches and players unclear. 


More coaches have now been accused of sexual misconduct following Riley’s actions coming to light. Rory Dames (Chicago Red Stars) and Christy Holly (Sky Blue FC) are being questioned for their behavior. 


Rightly so, the investigation report recommends that the safety and health of the players primary concerns. Additionally, it suggests that any misbehavior be reported accurately to the league and the soccer federation and to properly vet coaches. 


Though both the league and US Soccer are aptly dedicating resources to investigate the abuse within NWSL, they must do more to prevent misconduct going forward. This process has begun slowly with reform projects within the National Women’s Soccer League. But the “culture” of misconduct towards athletes is not temporary or recent; it is an issue that has become socially engrained. The level of exploitation and corruption that the NWSL has gotten to must be put to an end.  

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  1. S Steward

    Thank you to Kayla Ngai and may you continue to raise your voice.  I have this response, my reminder of how important women’s sports have become to our nation’s claim on equality.  We have not done enough, and women have endured too much, to be in this time and not have their equal rights enshrined into the Constitution.  

    —–The Game, The Gauntlet, Both —–

    “There are a few complainers on every team.”  That’s how it’s always been. Is it?

    Now that we have some of the best athletes in the world playing on 12 NWSL teams, several with their own stadiums and a big league fan base. Then why still are some coaches and managers warped out to think they are untouchable?

    We can look at our own home grown game here in Davis for answers.  Once the women’s game, through the talents of year after year of DHS dominance, became capable of supporting the semi-pro position of coach, the stakes of who plays, and the impropriety of who decides, went unchecked.  Nothing could stick to the coach because who would ever have the nerve to jeopardize their position on the team? We’ve seen that here in Davis, now multiply that 1,000 times across all the high schools and leagues in the nation.

    The treatment of women athletes, has lots of looks in the rear view mirror as to what really happened, even in the most successful clubs.  The legendary Anson Dorrance “catch them doing well” coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels and person whose book on how to coach the women’s game I read from cover to cover – even he slipped, but not enough to be asked to leave the game and that is the legacy.  Not enough over the line for many coaches. Few have been shown the door.

    Let’s hope that the women’s game is seeing past the use of that gleam in a young women’s eye, to play for her school, their college, the National Team as a way to exact fealty of mind and body.  

    The 2 to 0 loss to Spain could have been just an off day on the pitch, it could have been the result of facing a better team, but the USWNT games to England and Spain looked muffled, like the players had bubble wrap on their boots. I think it was impossible not to burdened by the Sally Yates’ investigation.  The team met their obligation but could not entirely shed their hurt, the weight of millions of kids trying to be like them; the players knowing, that their heralded gauntlet had also been a minefield, from U-12, all the way to the USWNT.  

    The players on the Women’s team will not let the failure of others define them, their team or their sport.  The legacy from before and after the 99ers (from Hamm, Akers and Scurry to Wambach, Lloyd, Rapinoe and Morgan to the past, present and future greats) they will continue to be brilliant.  They will continue to be fantastic in their expression of skill, grace and ferocity.

    Raise more voices, lift more history making woman to power to oust the culture that accepts the abuse from coach and administrator as part of the game.  The purging will not always go well but it continues. 

    The model of the infallible coach, that we see in all levels of women’s sport (and men’s), and particularly with sport that lead to scholarship and now professional levels, is not everywhere.  Principled coaching is practiced for everyone’s benefit, but the depth of spoiled relations and hopes exposed by Sally Yates’ investigation has roots that go beyond sport. It comes from an American acceptance of fealty, that formed in power over person, that has not left our commercial social systems and was expressed in slavery.

    Severe, but the tradition of slavery, and the absence effective emancipation of people and institution, is behind much of the bankrupt authority in sport and life. As a volunteer coach of women’s soccer for 19 years, from U-8 to U19, you see what happens when vice is looked upon as practice and I’m not free of complicity.  And this is not to despair, I looked then, and do now, at the greater good reflected in the enthusiastic happy faces chasing a ball in a game that was and is entirely their own.  We will not be defined by our shortcomings and neither will they.

    The Yates investigation does not state, but we cannot ignore, the origins of the pain of  fealty. It is a corruption with roots traced to slavery, and it has to be perennially exercised out of our systems.   It is a corruption that a Court is now determined to re-establish in almost every form except to call it slavery.  

    The Coney Court (if you want to call it the Supreme Court) wants to kill the genius of Title IX, because Title IX is not original white cisgender doctrine.  The Dobb’s ruling was just one of many rulings meant fracture that more perfect union, so beautifully expressed by the women’s game.  The full expression of women’s power is still not acceptable by many even when (and perhaps because) attendance is record breaking.

    The Women’s game is now the world’s game. We should not leave America’s women’s (or any) game to bad actors, flawed systems or backward courts.  We are the community that built the stage for this beautiful dignified game, we are the joyful fans who love the equity possible in sport and we will not go back. Raise your voice in support of the forces of nature you see before you so that they may finish their work, to play and reinforce freedom, youth to adult, for all women and all of us.

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