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.