Soccer·CBC Explains

World's top women soccer players say their league failed to protect them from sexual misconduct

The National Women’s Soccer League is reeling from sexual harassment and misconduct allegations involving one of its most prominent coaches, and the fallout has led to series of firings and resignations. Here's what you need to know.

Allegations involving prominent coach in National Women's Soccer League have led to firings, resignations

North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley was fired over sexual abuse allegations made by his former players dating back to 2011. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

A major scandal has shaken one of the world's top pro women's soccer leagues to its very foundation.

The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) is reeling from sexual harassment and misconduct allegations involving Paul Riley, one of its most prominent coaches, and the fallout has led to a series of firings and resignations.

The players are irate, including U.S. national team member Alex Morgan, who went on NBC's Today show this week and criticized the NWSL for its "systemic failure" to protect its athletes.

Here's what you need to know about this important, developing story:

What is the NWSL?

Founded in 2012, the National Women's Soccer League boasts 10 clubs across the United States at the moment, with expansion teams in Los Angeles and San Diego scheduled to come aboard in 2022.

Several members of Canada's Olympic gold-medal team play in the NWSL, including Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns), Nichelle Prince (Houston Dash), Desiree Scott (Kansas City) and Évelyne Viens (NJ/NY Gotham FC). A number of international stars also play in the NWSL, most notably Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign - Tacoma) of the United States, and Brazil's Marta (Orlando Pride).

The NWSL also features some notable investors. Former boxing great Oscar de la Hoya owns a stake in the Houston Dash, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka has invested in the North Carolina Courage, and actress Natalie Portman is part of the ownership group at Angel City FC, the Los Angeles expansion team.

WATCH | Bring It In panel on how NWSL scandal came to be:

Breaking down the NWSL - Paul Riley Scandal | Bring It In

2 months ago
11:34
Morgan Campbell, Shireen Ahmed and Meghan McPeak discuss the NWSL's scandal alledging Paul Riley's involvement in abusive behaviour and sexual conduct while head coach of the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns. 11:34

What is at the heart of the scandal?

Last week, The Athletic published a story detailing the accounts of two former players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. They accused North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley of misconduct and abuse, including using his position of authority to coerce them into sex.

The alleged harassment of Farrelly began in 2011 when she played under Riley for the Philadelphia Independence of the now-defunct Women's Professional Soccer (WPS).

Farrelly told The Athletic the harassment continued when she later played for Riley in the NWSL with Portland. Shim, a former Thorns player, also allegedly experienced harassment in Portland by Riley, who was fired by the club in 2015.

Riley was hired the following season by the Western New York Flash before the team moved to North Carolina. Riley went on to guide the North Carolina Courage to three consecutive league titles. He was also named the NWSL's coach of the year in 2017 and 2018.

Riley has denied the allegations made by Farrelly and Shim.

Former player Mana Shim has accused Riley of misconduct and abuse. (@Portland Thorns FC/Twitter)

What has been the fallout from this scandal?

Riley was fired by North Carolina on the same day that The Athletic story was published, and U.S. Soccer immediately suspended his coaching license. 

NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned a day after the story came out. Baird became commissioner of the NWSL in February 2020 after previously working for the United States Olympic Committee.

During her tenure as commissioner, Baird was lauded for attracting new sponsors to the NWSL and increasing the league's visibility, as well as guiding it through the global pandemic.

The NWSL's games scheduled for last weekend were postponed at the urging of the players' union, which also forced the league to open up an independent investigation into its handling of the accusations against Riley. Separate investigations were also launched by U.S. Soccer and FIFA, the world soccer's governing body.

The NWSL's board of governors announced this week the formation of a three-woman executive committee to oversee the league's front office operations until a new commissioner is named.

Additionally, the NWSL has set up a new secure and anonymous reporting platform, allowing players and staff to report misconduct.

NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned a day after Riley’s firing. (Lee Jin-man, File/The Associated Press)

Why didn't the Portland Thorns speak up?

The Thorns have received a lot of criticism for not speaking up sooner about why the team fired Riley six years ago.

Portland didn't renew Riley's contract in 2015 following a team investigation after one of its players filed a complaint against the veteran coach.

Portland sent information about its investigation to the league, but the club made no public mention of the allegations of abuse against Riley at the time. Riley went on to coach for several more years in the NWSL with Western New York and North Carolina, even though he had been fired by Portland for misconduct. 

Thorns owner Merritt Paulson released a public statement this week, apologizing for the club's lack of transparency.

"[We] made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley's contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy," Paulson wrote.

"I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women's professional soccer."

What did NWSL commissioner know? When did she know it?

Sinead Farrelly first raised her concerns over Riley with the NWSL six years ago, prior to Baird being hired as league commissioner. When the news came out last week, Baird issued a public statement in which she said, "I was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic."

But U.S. national team member Alex Morgan, who plays for the Orlando Pride, shot back by writing on Twitter that, "The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations. The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse."

In the same Twitter thread, Morgan posted screenshots of an email sent by Farrelly to Baird in April, asking how Riley is still coaching in the NWSL after the investigation conducted by the Thorns in 2015 over allegations of inappropriate behaviour led to him being fired.

Morgan also posted a screen shot of Baird's email response in which the commissioner wrote that Farrelly's initial complaint had been investigated to its conclusion.

U.S. forward and Orlando Pride team member Alex Morgan has criticized the league’s mismanagement of past allegations. (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Is this an isolated incident?

The Riley controversy is just the latest in a long line of scandals involving team officials that has rocked the NWSL this year.

Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was recently fired after a Washington Post report detailed his alleged verbal and emotional abuse of players.

The Spirit were also sanctioned by the NWSL after the league held a formal investigation, while Steve Baldwin resigned this week as CEO and managing partner of the club.

OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti was forced to quit in July after he made inappropriate comments during a team practice, while NJ/NY Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was dismissed for violating the league's anti-harassment policy. LaHue has denied the allegations.

Richie Burke’s firing as coach of the Washington Spirit was the latest in a string of scandals to hit the NWSL in recent months. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

What does this mean for the future of NWSL?

That's the million-dollar question.

The league's reputation has taken a huge beating, and it raises questions as to whether international players from abroad who might consider signing with an NWSL club under normal circumstances may now reconsider. The same can be said for NCAA prospects: Will they declare for the league's college draft, or sign with a team in Europe?

It's also clear that the league has a lot of work to do to win back the trust of its players. A number of top stars have called out the NWSL for allowing Riley to continue to coach in the league even after he was fired by Portland in 2015.

"NWSL, it's time to get your shit together," Becky Sauerbrunn, the U.S. national team captain, wrote on Twitter. "To be where we are today is unacceptable. The league and every club have to do better."

Canadian forward Christine Sinclair also took to Twitter. "Protect the players. Protect women," she wrote. "It's everyone's responsibility to hold the standards and enforce accountability. Why are we still dealing with these mostly male transgressions? This is unacceptable."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for a number of media outlets, including CBC Sports, Sportsnet and Sun Media. During his time at CBC Sports, John travelled to South Africa to cover the 2010 FIFA World Cup for CBCSports.ca. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of the Canadian game.

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