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Kelly Yu / Gavel Media

NWSL Allegations Display Long History of Systematic Failure

Editor’s Note: This article discusses sexual assault and included phrases that may be sensitive or triggering for some readers.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) has recently come under scrutiny for their handling of sexual misconduct allegations. On September 30, The Athletic published a story where two former Portland Thorns players accused former coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and harassment. The two players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, relay traumatic incidents of sexual coercion implemented by their coach. During her time under his coaching, Farrelly says how she “felt under his control” and was pressured into having sex with Riley multiple times. In one incident, Riley led Farrelly and Shim back to his apartment after a night of drinking. He then proceeded to ask them to kiss in exchange for the team not having to do difficult conditioning exercises. 

Shim filed a complaint in 2015, which led to an investigation by the Portland Thorns and a decision not to renew Paul Riley’s contract. Yet, only five months later, Riley was rehired by Courage in North Carolina, another NWSL team. 

What we see here is a combination of abuse of power and an ineffective process for the report of assault allegations, which leaves female athletes unprotected and exploited. Ciara McCormack, another professional soccer player, says that this trend is all too familiar. Players are afraid that if they push back at abusive behavior, they—and their careers—will be dropped. This, combined with improper investigations, permits a toxic cycle of coaches abusing their power over female athletes and getting away with it. 

Earlier this year, the NWSL adopted a new anti-harassment policy. After this adoption, both Shim and Farrelly requested a second investigation into former coach Riley. But Lisa Baird, the league’s commissioner, dismissed their request, saying their past complaint had already been “investigated to completion.” They had no choice but to go public.

We live in a world where coming forward with a sexual assault allegation does not get taken seriously until it gets publicized. People in power need to feel that there is a serious threat to their public image in order to take action. This, in turn, results in action taken not for the victims’ sake, but for self-preservation. Lisa Baird, for example, issued a solidarity statement after the article was published, saying she was “shocked and disgusted” at the reported allegations. Yet, why wasn’t she just as shocked and disgusted when these issues were brought up to her privately years prior? These systems of power, even with women at the head, demonstrate extremely exploitative and harmful methods that leave victims hurt and lost. 

The article detailing the assault received significant attention from news outlets and other female players. Many players spoke out and offered support, while also demanding that the NWSL take accountability. The league canceled its weekend matches on October 1-2, and the match on October 6 featured a demonstration from the players where they ceased play in the sixth minute, representing the six years that Farrelly and Shim were silenced. The players also published a list of eight demands regarding the investigation and hiring of commissioners.

On October 5, Farrelly and Shim discussed the allegations on NBC’s The Today Show. In the interview, they solemnly recounted the lasting effects of the assaults while criticizing the league’s failure to protect them and others. They then called for better systems to be put in place and for the league to be proactive in the protection of its players. Throughout the interview, they emphasized how prevalent and widespread sexual assault is in sports, and how so many women fight these battles silently. 

All of this has led former coach Paul Riley to be fired, and for league commissioner Lisa Baird to resign. Many owners of clubs have also been penning open letters. Thorns owner Merritt Paulson issued a letter apologizing for not doing more in regard to the termination of Riley. In the letter, he states that the club regrets not explicitly stating why Riley was let go from the Thorns and for their participation in the systemic failure in women’s soccer. He states how the Portland Thorns have a zero-tolerance for harassment, then proceeds to lay out what they as an organization are doing to protect players. Another open letter by North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik lists the mental health resources they have put in place, along with an apology for their failure to create a safe environment. He explains that he was told Riley was in “good standing” when they hired him. Lastly, investigations have been opened in FIFA, U.S. Soccer, and NWSL regarding the allegations against Riley and safety concerns surrounding female athletes.

While the current responses to the allegations are a step in the right direction, there is more to be done. Female athletes need a safe space to report and feel protected, coaches need to be held accountable, and allegations need to be taken seriously in order to ensure the protection female athletes deserve.