The National Women's Soccer League called off this weekend's games in the wake of a report from The Athletic detailing former players' accusations of sexual coercion against now former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley.
Former players said Riley made inappropriate comments about players' weight and sexual orientations, with allegations spanning multiple teams and leagues over a decade. But, he 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.
The league, teams and players' union reportedly were in meetings for most of Friday morning to discuss the matter. A statement was released shortly thereafter.
“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," NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement 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.”
One of the former players, Sinead Farrelly, detailed to The Athletic a 2011 incident, saying Riley coerced her into having sex with him and spending the night in his room. The sexual coercion continued during the offseason as well, said the now retired Farrelly, while she played for a semi-pro team Riley coached on Long Island in ’12.
Farrelly and another player, Meleana "Mana" Shim, shared a 2015 incident when Riley led the Portland Thorns teammates 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 Thorns' front office several days after the 2015 season ended.
"The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations," Orlando Pride's Alex Morgan wrote in a Twitter thread. "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 into how Riley was rehired in the league by the New York Flash in 2016, just months after complaints were first brought against him.
"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 Richie Burke, who was reportedly fired for harassment and creating a toxic work culture for female employees. In the report former players said Burke "made racially insensitive jokes" and described him as being "unbelievably volatile."
The Courage said in a statement on Thursday that given the "very serious allegations of misconduct" made against Riley, the club had terminated his contract. Additionally, it "support[s] the players who have come forward and we commend them for bravely sharing their stories."
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