NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird has resigned, the league confirmed Friday night, capping a tumultuous two days following a damning report alleging sexual coercion against North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. General counsel Lisa Levine is also reportedly being removed from her position by the league's board of directors, according to The Athletic's Meg Linehan.
The move came hours after the NWSL called off this weekend's games in the wake of a report from The Athletic that detailed former players' accusations against Riley, who was fired by the Courage and had his coaching license suspended by U.S. Soccer.
Additionally, former players said Riley made inappropriate comments about players' weight and sexual orientations, with allegations spanning three teams and three leagues, beginning in 2011.
Riley is not the first NWSL coach this season to be fired for sexual misconduct or abusive behavior. Ex–Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired for cause several days ago after he was suspended over allegations of verbal and emotional abuse in August.
“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling," Baird said in a statement earlier Friday. "Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now. Our entire league has a great deal of healing to do, and our players deserve so much better. We have made this decision in collaboration with our players association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue.”
Additionally, FIFA announced it will be conducting its own investigation into the Riley allegations "due to the severity and seriousness of the allegations being made by players."
"As part of this, FIFA will be reaching out to the respective parties, including U.S. Soccer and NWSL, for further information about the various safeguarding concerns and allegations of abuse that have been raised," the statement read, in part. "When it comes to misconduct in football, we would like to reiterate that FIFA’s position is clear: anyone found guilty of misconduct and abuse in football shall be brought to justice, sanctioned and removed from the game."
The U.S. Soccer Federation followed soon after, announcing that it "will launch an independent investigation into the allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct reported yesterday by The Athletic."
The national federation highlighted how it supports the NWSL financially and that many of its U.S. women's national team players compete within the league. The USSF added it takes "seriously our responsibility to vigorously investigate the abhorrent behavior that has been reported and gain a full and frank understanding of the factors that allowed it to happen, and the changes that should be made to make sure it does not happen again."
Sinead Farrelly, a former player, detailed a 2011 incident to The Athletic, saying that Riley coerced her into having sex with him and spending the night in his room. The sexual coercion allegedly continued during the offseason, said the now retired Farrelly, while she played for a semi-pro team Riley coached on Long Island in ’12.
Farrelly and then-Portland Thorns teammate, Meleana "Mana" Shim, shared a 2015 incident when Riley allegedly led the two players to his apartment after a night of drinking and pressured them to kiss each other while he watched. Shim filed a complaint about Riley's behavior with the franchise's front office several days after the 2015 season ended.
Orlando Pride's Alex Morgan backed the former players, bringing out the receipts on Twitter.
"The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations," Morgan wrote in a Twitter thread, which included screenshots of emails to Baird in April and May 2021 as well as the response from the commissioner with Levine cc'ed on the exchange. "The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse."
Shortly after The Athletic's report was published, the National Women's Soccer League Players Association called for an investigation into the allegations and how Riley was rehired in the league in 2016, by the Western New York Flash (the franchise that ultimately relocated to North Carolina).
"We, the players of the NWSL, stand with Sinead Farrelly, Mana Shim, Kaiya McCullough, and each of the players who have brought their stories into the light — both known and unknown. Words cannot adequately capture our anger, pain, sadness, and disappointment," the statement said. "... We refuse to be silent any longer. Our commitment as players is to speak truth to power. We will no longer be complicit in a culture of silence that has enabled abuse and exploitation in our league and in our sport."
McCullough was part of a Washington Post investigation into former Spirit coach Burke. In the report, former players said Burke "made racially insensitive jokes" and described him as being "unbelievably volatile."