The National Women's Soccer League has been loved by its club owners, executives, and coaches since its inception. For the on-field product, it may have been the best. It would be a mistake to make such claims about the NWSL's other products.
Take a look at the biggest stories in this season's "best" league: In just four months, four different coaches, all men were fired for off-field reasons. These included alleged sexual misconduct and verbal abuse, toxic work environments, racist remarks, and abusive verbal language. Worse, almost all of the cases involved coaches whose problematic behavior was known prior to their hiring. These were not isolated incidents, but patterns.
- Morgan: NWSL has a problem with sexual harassment
Riley was fired amid serious allegations about sexual misconduct
A true world-class league would care about its players and learn from its failures. But the history of the NWSL over nine years is littered with repeated failures that have eroded its credibility. It also neglected the well-being its players. The players are now speaking out, forcing the league face the gap between what it wants and what it is.
Paul Riley, one the most respected and decorated coaches in the league, was the latest victim of sex coercion. He also allegedly used verbal abuse and inappropriate behavior to force a player to have sex. Sinead Farrelly, and Mana Shim were former players who decided to share their stories. Farrelly claimed Riley manipulated the coach-player power imbalance by coercing Farrelly into having sex with the latter. Shim claims Riley used many of the same tactics against Shim that he used on Farrelly. Riley denied the allegations.
The stories are disturbing, but even more troubling is the fact that Shim first reported Riley's behavior in 2015 to the Portland Thorns. Both the Thorns as well as the NWSL did it quietly. This allowed Riley to continue his career, which placed more players at risk. Six years later, Riley was expelled from the league. U.S. Soccer also suspended his coaching license. This happened after Shim, Farrelly and others made their stories public. However, the NWSL, which U.S Soccer managed and operated, had all the resources and opportunities to investigate the incident before the players. Former Portland player Alex Morgan, USWNT, tweeted an email from Lisa Baird, the NWSL Commissioner. She claimed that it had been "investigated and concluded" and that she could not share additional details.
The Riley incident follows a familiar pattern in the NWSL, where player concerns are ignored and brushed aside.
Take the recent firing by the Washington Spirit of Richie Burke, coach. Although he was fired for verbal abuse directed at players and racist comments, Spirit owner Steve Baldwin had warned Larry Best about Burke's character, and hired him anyway. His former youth players complained about Burke's abuse of them, citing anti-gay slurs as well as cruel names. Spirit players raised concerns last year but he continued to hold the job.
The NWSL is at an important crossroads because of its past mishandling predatory behavior and other inappropriate conduct as well as its inability to protect players. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
As the Washington Post was about to publish an expose on Burke's abuse, Burke was protected by the Spirit. Baldwin, Best, and the club "reassigned” Burke to the front office. A news release stated that Burke had to resign as a coach due to "health concerns" and not because of his abuse which led to several players leaving the team. Based on the Washington Post reporting, the NWSL fired Burke for violating an anti-harassment policy that players like Alex Morgan had encouraged the league to adopt earlier in the year.
(Baldridge resigned as Spirit president/CEO on Tuesday at the "recent demand of his players," he concluded his statement saying, "I hope that taking a step back removes me from being a distraction and allows for the club to flourish."
Consider the July firing of Farid Benstiti, OL Reign coach. The Reign protected him and made it appear that the decision was based on results. Club CEO Bill Predmore released a beautiful statement in which he thanked Benstiti for his contribution and praised "all he had to offer the club." Later reports claim that Benstiti's departure was caused by verbal abuse directed at players. Players filed formal complaints. There was ample warning -- Lindsey Horan, U.S. national soccer team midfielder, had shared her experiences with Benstiti’s misogyny & body-shaming years back when she played for PSG.
Although there are many more, they all sound similar. Although the NWSL is trying to present itself as a platform for female empowerment it has been hampered by institutional failures meant to protect everyone else.
Play 1:03 Foudy's message for NWSL: Believe the women Julie Foudy reacts after Lisa Baird resigned as commissioner of the NWSL following the latest allegations of abuse within the league.
Can the NWSL end this cycle?
This environment was not created in a vacuum. Players learned from previous failed U.S. women's soccer leagues that substandard treatment is part of maintaining a league's viability. Any controversy could undermine the league's foundation, or indict women's soccer overall; players were expected to be content that they had a league.
This culture of silence and tolerance of bad behavior flourished because the NWSL failed to learn from previous leagues. The NWSL's predecessor, Women's Professional Soccer, (WPS) was disbanded a decade ago due to legal turmoil created by magicJack. This club, run by Dan Borislow who verbally abused and sexually harassed players and told them to call him "daddy", was a club that Dan Borislow ran. Ella Masar shared her story about Borislow's conduct, which included Borislow refusing her medical treatment for her broken nose despite many witnesses.
Where does the NWSL go from there?
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One reaction might be to close the NWSL and start over. It's worth questioning whether the hard work of athletes who built the league should be erased by the actions and enablers of a few toxic men. It is up to the players who gave up stable careers and higher-paying jobs in order to play in the NWSL to make it what it is today. They should decide what the next steps are.
The NWSL's players are now united and have the power to do so. The NWSL Players Association was only able to become a fully functioning union in April, when it began the first ever collective bargaining negotiations. It's not surprising that the league is being forced to confront its failure to protect its players after the players became more organized and unified.
The NWSLPA released a statement on Thursday saying that "We refuse to remain silent any longer." "Our players commitment is to speak truth and power. We will not be complicit in silence that has allowed abuse and exploitation in our league, and in our sport.
The pursuit of accountability
On Friday night, Baird, who was the commissioner of the NWSL, resigned. Lisa Levine, the league’s general counsel, was also dismissed. Morgan made sure their departures were not forced by their failure to seriously address player safety concerns. Morgan replied to Baird's claim that she was "shocked" at the "new allegations" that emerged. She tweeted screenshots from an email exchange in which Farrelly showed that Baird had been directly contacted by Farrelly. Farrelly told the commissioner earlier this summer that Riley's incidents had not been thoroughly investigated in 2015.
Farrelly was informed by Baird in the emails that there would not be any further investigation. The original controversy surrounding this latest controversy, and the decision to keep it quiet, occurred six years ago. This was well before Baird and Levine took over their roles as NWSL officials.
Farrelly (bottom row, center) and Shim (bottom row, second from right) were the first players to make their stories public. This led to a thorough examination of the culture of silence and complicity in the NWSL. Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Merritt Paulson is the Portland Timbers CEO and part-owner. He has been praised over the years for making the club the first MLS team to join the NWSL. She said that she did not receive the initial email from Shim requesting her response. Paulson dismissed Riley. The club had already stated that it was considering the matter long before Shim's complaint. This decision was made because Riley had the worst season in Thorns' history. The club released it as a non renewal, which stated that Riley "will no longer be retained." Thorns General Manager Gavin Wilkinson thanked Riley for his services. The NWSL commissioner at that time, Jeff Plush, now runs USA Curling let the Thorns deal with it.
After Shim filed a grievance, the Thorns conducted an investigation. The club claims that the investigation was thorough. Morgan, who assisted Shim in reporting Riley’s advances, claimed she was not contacted or interviewed, despite her being listed as someone with knowledge about Shim's story in the complaint. Farrelly claimed she was only interviewed for 20 minutes and didn't share her history with Riley.
Although the Thorns claim they took harassment allegations seriously, it is perhaps pertinent to note that the NWSL has a history with coach-player relationships. Scott Vallow was Riley's assistant coach at Thorns. He was also dating a player. One month later, Shim left Thorns to go to Japan. Farrelly was then traded to the Boston Breakers. Farrelly asked Wilkinson about the reason and he said it was nothing to do the investigation. Farrelly also recalls that he did not answer a question regarding whether Riley could coach for another league team. In five months, Riley was hired by the Western New York Flash and he continued as the team's coach until it moved to North Carolina.
Play 1:47 Why aren't there more women coaches in NWSL Julie Foudy joins Futbol Americas for a discussion about the scandal that rocked NWSL.
Aaran Lines was the original Flash hire and said that he knew of a complaint against Riley but that it did not show "illegal activity." It is not clear what Lines thought about the complaint, or what details he was made aware of. Lines had a good relationship with Wilkinson and asked for more information. Wilkinson and Lines had previously played together on the New Zealand national team as well as the Timbers.
Paulson maintained a friendly relationship with Riley over the years, praising him publicly on social media for his "phenomenal job in North Carolina" during the next few years. In the meantime, Riley was chosen to coach more players, despite allegations against him.
On Friday, Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage, which took over the Flash and kept Riley as coach. Curt Johnson, the club president and Stephen Malik, Courage owner, have not commented on this matter. It's unclear whether they knew about Shim’s 2015 complaint. Joe Sahlen is the Flash's owner and they are no longer part NWSL.
In the wake of Paul Riley's scandal, Lisa Baird was forced to resign as NWSL commissioner. However, there must be real accountability and reform. Bryan Byerly/ISI Photos/Getty Images
Paulson had already sent an "open letter" Monday to Thorns fans, defending his actions. He stated that he believed keeping Riley's behavior silent was the right thing to have done out of respect for player privacy. He doesn't mention that he tried to get the opinion of the players. He sounds just as hollow as Predmore from OL Reign's excuse for Benstiti's firing, which he claimed he withheld the true reason to avoid "additional harm."
Jess Fishlock (OL Reign and Wales midfielder) said on last week's conference call that she and her team wished Benstiti's announcement was more clear.
She said, "If you don’t want your name in media, don’t behave in a manner where your name will appear in the media." "That's not our responsibility to feel bad about. It is unfair to place that burden on players to make them feel bad about causing harm to someone. ... If someone behaves in an unacceptable manner, it must be made public to ensure that it does not happen again."
Predmore has stated that he is open to accepting responsibility for his decisions, but Paulson's letter seems to be an attempt to avoid it. Paulson uses language suggesting that the Thorns could have done more, rather than admitting they should. It is hard to believe that Riley's scandal was not a matter of accountability if Riley and Levine are the only ones held responsible. The Riley scandal is just one of many symptoms, as are the hirings Burke and Benstiti that point to deeper systemic problems within the NWSL.
This reckoning cannot be ignored or treated quietly as the NWSL's past problems. It is time for serious reform in the league. This will take a while and be hard. The league must be transparent and player-led. Owners, coaches, and executives who are proud of the NWSL should embrace it. Without accountability, the NWSL won't be the best league in the world.