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There’s No Hiding for NWSL’s Culpable Leadership

NWSL players have had enough, and while Paul Riley’s alleged acts are not the only improper ones that have transpired in recent months and years, they make for a tipping point.

Alex Morgan brought the receipts. 

NWSL, commissioner Lisa Baird and other team executives can be sympathetic. Their sentiments can even be genuine. But what’s done can’t be erased by a crafted statement. Especially when those statements are effectively rendered inaccurate or incomplete by the receipts.

The Athletic shed light Thursday on a history of alleged sexual coercion on the part of Paul Riley, who is now the former coach of the North Carolina Courage and who has had his coaching license suspended by U.S. Soccer and been reported to the U.S. Center for SafeSport as a result. But those reactionary disciplinary moves are all part of the same systemic failure that has led to the players’ simply not being able to take it anymore. There will be no standing by silently, and there will be no deference to league leadership, especially a culpable selection of it that has nowhere to hide after a tipping-point moment, which was preceded by plenty of other incidents of alleged abuse that should have sounded the alarms at the highest level far sooner.

A number of players across the league spoke out following the revelations brought forward by Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly in Thursday's investigative piece. Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn, Christine Sinclair, Samantha Mewis, Lynn Williams and Nadia Nadim (the latter of whom lifted the lid on a whole slew of other alleged league improprieties) were among the many to voice their support for the players and anger at the league for allowing a culture where abuse could go either unpunished, unchecked or not fully investigated.

“We refuse to be silent any longer,” the NWSL players association said in a statement Thursday. “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.”

Morgan showed to what lengths the players are prepared to go. In response to Baird’s statement Thursday that she was “shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations” that were reported, Morgan shared a screen-shotted email exchange between Farrelly and Baird in which the former was attempting to discuss those very allegations back in April 2021. According to Baird, at the time, “the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion” in ’15, long before she became commissioner. That’s that.

As for Morgan, she said, “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.”

Riley’s story is just the latest in a series of black marks on the league’s operations. And Baird’s referring Farrelly to the league’s current “commitment to creating and maintaining a safe and respectful work environment” doesn’t exactly hold up well. The current culture evidently is how OL Reign hired a coach, Farid Benstiti, who had a history of verbal abuse involving U.S. women's national team midfielder Lindsey Horan while the two were at PSG, was then hired by the club and then promptly forced to resign—but allowed to do so amid flowery language and well wishes—due to another similar incident. That was according to The Washington Post, whose reporting Thursday was confirmed by Reign CEO Bill Predmore at a Friday press conference.

“The decision to hire Farid was mine and I accept responsibility for that, and I think in hindsight I got it wrong. How people wish to hold me accountable, I don’t think it’s for me to decide,” Predmore said.

It goes beyond what’s happened in Portland, North Carolina and Tacoma as well. It’s how the Utah Royals had to be sold and pop up as a new franchise in Kansas City due to a toxic culture perpetuated by former owner Dell Loy Hansen. It's how the Washington Spirit employed coach Richie Burke and continue to be owned by Stephen Baldwin amid reports of a toxic, abusive culture within that club. It’s how Alyse LaHue, now former general manager of NJ/NY Gotham FC, was fired for reportedly and vaguely violating anti-harrassment protocols. It’s how Christy Holly was fired by Racing Louisville FC “for cause,” though the reasons for that have not been divulged. Even Angel City FC, whose entry to the league along with San Diego next season is cause for excitement and eager anticipation, hasn't been immune, with one of its many investors facing serious allegations of sexual improprieties before the club ultimately distanced itself from him. It’s been an absolutely brutal period for the league when it comes to its own HQ and its franchises around the U.S. either vetting people hired to positions of power or holding them accountable when they do harm.

NWSL, after talks with its players association, took the extraordinary measure of calling off the matches slated to be played this weekend, “given the gravity of the events of the last week,” while releasing a statement from Baird that alluded to the previous infractions.

NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird

“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,” Baird wrote. “I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. 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.”

Baird, for all of the praise she deserves for taking over the league at the onset of the pandemic, guiding it through the early throes with a successfully executed bubble tournament, bringing on additional sponsorship and broadcast exposure and then overseeing the addition of further expansion, deserves to be held accountable for all that's transpired, and her saying, “I take full responsibility” really carries weight only if she resigns. She’s not the first organization head to “take full responsibility,” only to carry on in her role in the immediate aftermath of scandal, and she certainly won’t be the last, but if she does indeed see this out, there’s a league full of players with whom she has to rebuild a whole lot of trust. 

(UPDATE: Baird resigned Friday night, with NWSL confirming the change at the top. The Athletic reported that the league’s general counsel is also out.)

And beyond that, the league and all its clubs need to be exponentially more mindful of who is hired in leadership positions and how any and all malfeasance is handled. Those who have enabled and empowered this toxic environment over the last number of years need more than just a serious rethink. The workforce won’t settle for anything less.

“I think we need to be asking questions of ourselves,” Predmore added in his press conference. “Everybody involved in the league needs to be looking at the things that we’ve done in the past and figure out a better way forward.”

It's another well-crafted statement, even if his came in direct response to a question. Whether the proper actions will follow is all that matters.

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