Since the inception of the National Women’s Soccer League, its club owners, executives and coaches have loved to call the NWSL the best women’s soccer league in the world — and for the on-field product alone, they may have been right. But when it comes to just about everything else in the NWSL, it would take willful ignorance to make such claims.
Consider this season’s biggest storylines for the so-called “best” league in the world: Four different coaches, all men, have been fired in just the past four months for off-field reasons, including alleged sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, toxic work environments and racist remarks. Even worse, in almost every case, the coach’s problematic behavior had been known before his hiring — there were patterns, not one-offs — but those teams hired them anyway.
The actual best league in the world would take care of its players and learn from its mistakes, but the NWSL’s nine-year history is riddled with repeated failures that undermine its credibility as it overlooked the well-being of players. Now, the players are speaking out and forcing the league to reckon with the gulf between what the NWSL wants to be and what it actually is.
The latest controversy concerns Paul Riley, one of the most decorated and well-respected coaches in the league, who on Thursday was accused of coercing a player into having sex with him, along with verbal abuse, homophobic comments and other inappropriate behavior. Former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim made the decision to share their stories — Farrelly accused Riley of manipulating the coach-player power imbalance and coercing her into having sex with him, while Shim said Riley tried many of the same tactics on her that he allegedly used with Farrelly. Riley denied their allegations.
As disturbing as the stories are, what’s more disturbing is that Shim reported Riley’s behavior to the Portland Thorns in 2015, and both the Thorns and the NWSL handled it quietly, allowing Riley to keep his career intact, which put more players at risk. On Friday, six years later, Riley was finally ousted from the league and U.S. Soccer suspended his coaching license after Shim and Farrelly made their stories public — though the NWSL, which U.S. Soccer managed and operated, had the means and the opportunities to take the lead in their own investigation long before the players went to the media. USWNT and former Portland player Alex Morgan tweeted an email from NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird, who claimed it had been “investigated to conclusion” and that “unfortunately, I cannot share any additional details.”
The Riley ordeal follows an all-too-familiar pattern in the NWSL where player concerns are ignored or brushed aside.
Consider the recent firing of coach Richie Burke at the Washington Spirit. He was fired last month for alleged verbal abuse aimed at players and racist remarks, yet Spirit owner Steve Baldwin and CEO Larry Best had been warned about exactly the type of coach Burke was, only to hire him anyway. When he was initially hired in 2018, his former youth players spoke out, saying he berated them with homophobic slurs and cruel names. Spirit players raised concerns internally last year, and still he remained on the job.
This August, as the Washington Post prepared to publish an expose about Burke’s abuse, the Spirit protected Burke: Baldwin, Best and the club “reassigned” him to the front office and issued a news release claiming Burke had to step away from coaching for “health concerns,” not because his abuse drove several players to quit the team. The NWSL later stepped in, based on the Washington Post’s reporting, and fired him for violating a new anti-harassment policy, which players such as Alex Morgan had pushed the league to implement earlier this year.
Then consider the firing in July of OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti. The Reign protected him, framing it as a decision based on results, and club CEO Bill Predmore issued a flowery statement thanking Benstiti and admiring “all he brought to the organization.” The real reason Benstiti left, according to later reports, was due to verbal abuse aimed at players, who filed formal complaints. Again, there was enough forewarning — U.S. national team midfielder Lindsey Horan had publicly shared her experience with Benstiti’s misogyny and body-shaming years ago when she played for PSG.
There are more examples throughout the NWSL’s history, but they all begin to sound the same. The NWSL has sought to position itself as a platform for female empowerment, but behind the scenes, it’s the athletes who have suffered most amid the institutional failures that seemed to be designed to protect everyone else.
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Can the NWSL break this cycle?
It’s important to note that this environment wasn’t created in a vacuum. The previous failed women’s soccer leagues in the U.S. taught players that putting up with substandard treatment was part of keeping a league afloat. Any controversy could chip away at the league’s foundation or become an indictment on women’s club soccer as a whole; the tacit expectation for players was to be happy they had a league at all.
But this culture of silence and tolerance for bad behavior thrived precisely because the NWSL didn’t heed the lessons of previous leagues. It was a decade ago that the NWSL’s predecessor, Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), folded partly because of the legal turmoil caused by magicJack, a club run by Dan Borislow, who verbally abused players, sexually harassed them and told them to call him “daddy.” Borislow’s behavior first came to light when one player, Ella Masar, shared her story, which included Borislow refusing to let her get medical treatment for a broken nose despite so many others witnessing it.
So where does the NWSL go from here?
A knee-jerk reaction may be to shut the NWSL down and start over. But it’s worth asking whether the hard work of the athletes who built the league from the ground up should be wiped away by the actions of a few toxic men and their enablers. The players who sacrificed stable careers and better-paying jobs to play in the NWSL have made the league what it is today, and they should decide what happens next.
Now that the NWSL’s players have recently unionized, they finally have that power. The NWSL Players Association only became a fully effective union in April when it embarked on the first-ever collective bargaining negotiations with the NWSL, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the league is now being forced to reckon with its failure to protect its own players after the players themselves became more unified and organized.
“We refuse to be silent any longer,” the NWSLPA 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.”
The search for accountability
Late Friday night, Baird resigned as commissioner of the NWSL while Lisa Levine, the league’s general counsel, was also ousted. Their failure to take player safety concerns seriously made their exits necessary, but Morgan ensured it. After Baird claimed to be “shocked” by the “new allegations” that surfaced, Morgan responded with the receipts: she tweeted screenshots of an email exchange showing that Baird had been contacted directly by Farrelly, who told the commissioner earlier this year that the incidents involving Riley had not been fully investigated in 2015.
In the emails, Baird told Farrelly there would be no further investigation. But the initial ordeal at the center of this latest controversy — and the decision to handle it quietly — happened six years ago, well before Baird or Levine assumed their roles with the NWSL.
Portland Timbers part-owner and CEO Merritt Paulson, who has enjoyed praise over the years for making his club the first MLS one to join the NWSL, did not respond to the initial email from Shim lodging the complaint against Riley, she said. Paulson dismissed Riley, a decision the club had said it was considering well before Shim’s complaint because Riley recorded the worst season in Thorns history. A club press release framed it as a non-renewal, stating that Riley “will not be retained,” as Thorns GM Gavin Wilkinson was quoted thanking Riley for his service. Jeff Plush, the NWSL commissioner at the time, who now runs USA Curling, let the Thorns handle it.
The Thorns did conduct an investigation after Shim filed a complaint and the club says it was thorough, but Morgan, who aided Shim in reporting Riley’s advances, said she was never contacted or interviewed despite being listed in the complaint as someone with knowledge of Shim’s ordeal. Farrelly said she was interviewed for only about 20 minutes and did not share her own history with Riley.
The Thorns say they took the allegations of harassment seriously, but it’s perhaps relevant context that the NWSL has a history of coach-player relationships. Riley’s assistant coach at the Thorns, Scott Vallow, was dating a player on the team at the time. About one month later, Shim left the Thorns to play in Japan, but Farrelly was traded to the Boston Breakers. When Farrelly asked Wilkinson why, he insisted it had nothing to do with the investigation, and Farrelly recalls that he evaded a question about whether Riley might coach again for another team in the league. Within five months, Riley had been hired by the Western New York Flash, and he stayed on as the team’s head coach when it relocated to North Carolina.
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Aaran Lines, who initially hired Riley at the Flash, said he was aware of a complaint filed against Riley, but said it showed “no unlawful activity.” It’s also unclear what Lines, who married a player on the Flash while he was her coach, thought of the complaint or what exact details he had been made of aware of in it. Lines knew Wilkinson well enough to ask for more details, though — Lines and Wilkinson had played on both the New Zealand national team and the Timbers together previously.
For the following years, Paulson remained friendly with Riley, publicly praising him on social media for the “phenomenal job” he was doing in North Carolina. Meanwhile, more players were subjected to having Riley as their coach, despite the allegations against him.
The North Carolina Courage, the club that took over the Flash and kept Riley on as coach, fired Riley on Friday. Neither Courage owner Stephen Malik nor club president Curt Johnson have commented, so it’s unclear if they knew anything about Shim’s 2015 complaint or if they should have known. The Flash and its owner, Joe Sahlen, are no longer part of the NWSL.
By Monday, Paulson issued an “open letter” to Thorns fans defending his actions, saying he thought keeping Riley’s behavior quiet “was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy.” But he makes no mention of attempting to ask the players what they felt was “the right thing to do.” His excuse rings as hollow as the one from Predmore of OL Reign, who said he didn’t reveal the real reason for Benstiti’s firing in order to minimize “additional damage.”
OL Reign and Wales midfielder Jess Fishlock, on the same conference call last week with Predmore, was explicit that she and her teammates wished the announcement about Benstiti was clearer.
“If you don’t want your name in the media, then don’t behave in a way where your name will be in the media,” she said. “That’s not on us to feel bad for that. It’s not fair to put that on the players, to make them feel bad for potentially causing damage to somebody. … If somebody behaves in a way that is so unacceptable, that has to be made public so it cannot happen again.”
While Predmore, to his credit, has said he is willing to accept accountability for his decisions in whatever form it takes, Paulson’s letter reads like an attempt to avoid it, as demonstrated by Paulson’s language that the Thorns “could have done more,” instead of admitting they should have done more. If the only people held accountable for the Riley scandal besides Riley are two women, Baird and Levine, both of whom arrived long after the worst of what happened, it hardly looks like accountability — certainly not to the players and not to fans. Yet the Riley scandal is only one symptom among many, like the hirings of Burke and Benstiti, which point to deeper systemic issues within the NWSL.
This reckoning can’t be brushed aside or handled quietly like the NWSL’s problems in the past. The league needs serious reform that will be difficult and take a long time, and it needs to be both transparent and player-led. The owners, executives and coaches who love to boast about the NWSL should welcome it — after all, the NWSL will never truly be the best in the world without real accountability.