NYT > Sports
A prominent head coach of the United States’ top women’s football league was sacked Thursday after several former players accused him of verbally and sexually abusing her while on his teams, a disturbing reminder of the power dynamic that women can bring into professional sports in vulnerable positions, although their notoriety and salary have increased in recent years.
The head coach, Paul Riley, was the second to be fired from a National Women’s Soccer League team this week and the third to lose his job for misconduct since August. Both Riley, who led North Carolina Courage to two championships, and Richie Burke, who was fired from the Washington Spirit on Tuesday, were removed from their roles after the players detailed what they considered abusive and, in Riley’s case, sexual Coercion behavior described by the men. The third coach, Christy Holly, was fired from Racing Louisville “for good reason” in August; the team never disclosed the reasons for his dismissal.
The recent allegations against Riley and Burke – which have been enumerated in a number of published reports – are a seismic shock to the NWSL, a nine-year league still struggling to gain a foothold.
They also asked questions about the League’s handling of workplace harassment issues, as many of the NWSL’s allegations were known and even investigated, but only resulted in decisive action when the players publicly shared their stories.
In a statement, the League commissioner Lisa Baird said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the allegations against Riley, but did not mention that the players involved had personally raised their concerns earlier this year.
In a flamboyant statement Thursday, the NWSL players’ union called for immediate action from the league after a number of allegations over the past few years that coaches, owners and team leaders had abused or exploited athletes and that the league lacks an effective system of investigation or stop wrongdoing.
“The NWSL has let us down,” the union said, announcing that they will provide advice to any player who seeks help and provide a way for NWSL players to report abuse.
The players’ union called for an immediate investigation into the allegations against Riley; Suspensions for employees accused of violating the League’s Anti-Harassment Policy or failing to report such abuse; and explanations of how some previous allegations were dealt with.
The call came after several published reports that league coaches verbally and sexually abused their players – sometimes for years and even after players reported the abuse to team and league officials.
The biggest reveal came Thursday morning when The Athletic published an article containing allegations that Riley, who trained the Courage to two consecutive NWSL titles in 2018 and 2019, forced a player to have sex with him; forced two players to kiss and then sent them unsolicited sexual images; and yelled at players and humiliated them.
The Athletic also reported that Riley was fired from his head coaching job at the Portland Thorns in 2015 for violating team guidelines. In a statement to The Athletic, Courage said that Riley “for all we know” met the club’s expectations, and the NWSL acknowledged that it had refused to investigate the events with Riley and the Thorns despite one Request from players to resume doing so.
But hours after the report was released, the team fired Riley.
“Given today’s reports, North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley has been fired with immediate effect following very serious allegations of misconduct,” the team said in a statement allegedly from owners, staff and players.
The NWSL said it would report Riley to the US Center for Safesport, a nonprofit organization established by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committees to protect athletes from sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The United States Football Association said it suspended Riley’s coaching license.
Riley denied most of the allegations against The Athletic, and he did not respond to a request for comment from the New York Times.
In its statement, the NWSL players’ union also demanded to know how Riley was hired and retained by the Western New York Flash when they moved to North Carolina, even after allegations against him were discovered by one of his former employers, the Thorns.
His abrupt discharge came days after the NWSL closed an investigation into another of their teams, the Washington Spirit. The league did not disclose the results of the investigation, but announced that Spirit’s coach, Burke, had been fired for cause and was no longer allowed to work in the NWSL and that the owners of Spirit would be banned from participating in the league-wide leadership would matters. “The Board of Governors of the NWSL has determined that the Spirit and its ownership have not acted in the best interests of the League,” the NWSL said in the statement.
The investigation was prompted by a report in the Washington Post that Burke would regularly unleash “a barrage of threats, criticism and personal insults” on his players. One player, Kaiya McCullough, said she left the team because of the abuse she allegedly suffered.
The allegations had precedents: two years ago, youth players accused Burke of using offensive language in a previous job. The ghost was behind him then.
Several consistent themes emerged in many of the female gambler’s abuse stories. One of them was the feeling of impotence on the part of the players or the responsibility to accept inappropriate behavior instead of reporting it for fear of creating public problems for the rising professional leagues, who often exist on precarious financial bases. While many members of the United States ‘women’s national team are well known and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, about three-quarters of the NWSL’s players make $ 31,000 or less per season, according to the players’ union.
“It is outrageous that the NWSL knew about this abuse and allowed the perpetrator to be reinstated,” wrote Meghan Klingenberg, a long-time member of the Thorns and world champion, on Twitter. She added, “Why do we have to put up with inadequate conditions and unsafe work environments while abusers receive protection, good pay and a new hunting ground for young women?”
Alex Morgan, a star of the US women’s national team and the NWSL’s Orlando Pride, then posted an email exchange on Twitter between one of Riley’s accusers and Baird, who told Morgan that the league “failed to accommodate its own players protection”.
In an email to Baird, the player, Sinead Farrelly, appears to offer new information that she has “experienced firsthand extremely inappropriate behavior.” Baird replied that the league’s records showed the case “has been investigated to completion”.
Abuse, lack of leadership, and a willingness to ignore issues that could negatively impact women’s football have intensified in recent months, but they fit into a longstanding pattern. The previous league of the NWSL, Women’s Professional Soccer, partially failed in 2012 due to a legal battle between the league and the owner of the magicJack team, Dan Borislow, after players accused Borislow of harassing and threatening players.
Last year, Major League Soccer forced Dell Loy Hansen, who owns Real Salt Lake and also owned the Utah Royals in NWSL, to sell his teams after former players and staff detailed his history of racist and sexist comments. And earlier this season, NWSL’s New York club, Gotham FC, fired its general manager, Alyse LaHue, for unspecified league policy violations.