Former players have accused three-time NWSL champion and two-time Coach of the Year Paul Riley of sexual coercion and inappropriate comments that span decades and multiple teams, The Athletic’s Meg Linehan and Katie Strang reported Thursday.
Hours after the report, the NWSL and North Carolina Courage, where Riley has coached since 2017, announced the club had fired Riley, effective immediately. The statement is signed, “players, staff and principal owner of the North Carolina Courage.”
NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement the league will report the new allegations to the US Center for SafeSport to investigate and will implement a new anonymous reporting process.
Baird said the league will also mandate league and team staff who regularly interact with players take US Center for SafeSport training and undergo mandatory background checks and additional screening.
The Athletic report details instances of sexual harassment, misconduct, intimidation and inappropriate remarks about players’ weight and sexual orientation. Riley, currently head coach of the North Carolina Courage, reportedly blurred the lines between work and personal life consistently, using it to coerce certain players into sexual encounters.
The NWSL Players Association immediately released a statement calling for an investigation and voicing support of players who have recently voiced allegations against coaches.
“NWSL has failed us,” the statement reads. “We are taking our power back.”
Two players, Sinead Farrelly and Meleana “Mana” Shim, went on the record with their allegations and spoke of trauma involved with playing under the coach. The Athletic spoke with players from every team Riley coached since 2010. They also spoke with U.S. women’s national team star Alex Morgan, who played for Riley in Portland, who confirmed the players’ stories and actively tried to help them report the allegations. In addition, she tweeted support of the players Thursday morning with a call for action.
“I am sickened and have too many thoughts to share at this moment,” she wrote. “Bottom line: protect your players. Do the right thing NWSL.”
Mana and Sinead, we support you and are in your corner. I am sickened and have too many thoughts to share at this moment. Bottom line: protect your players. Do the right thing @NWSL https://t.co/7TGymLLrvn
— Alex Morgan (@alexmorgan13) September 30, 2021
The report follows a slew of allegations and investigations within the NWSL ranks, and within the soccer community. Only two days prior, the NWSL announced that former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke had been fired after investigations into verbal abuse.
Paul Riley allegations
Farrelly detailed a control she felt Riley had over her, so much so that she even turned down a roster spot with the USWNT ahead of the 2011 World Cup. She said the coach told her she had been disloyal to him and her teammates by leaving for an earlier camp, even though she didn’t miss a match.
One player on Riley’s former Philadelphia Independence roster told The Athletic there was a “sense that he wants to control your life outside of the stadium as well.” He would reportedly hold team retreats at his large Long Island home, insisting the entire team hang out there and not leave, and he would often pay for bar tabs during long nights out drinking.
After a night out drinking following a loss in the 2011 WPS final, the team piled into a passenger van to head back to the hotel. Farrelly told The Athletic she had to sit on Riley’s lap in the back of the van and he grabbed her hips, a move she felt crossed the line.
“I felt claimed. That word honestly describes it perfectly for me, because I have this feeling that he went around and he looked at his prospects, and he zeroed in on me. He claimed me; that’s what his touch felt like. I just remember thinking: Is anyone else seeing this?” Given her age and where she was in her career, from that moment on, “I felt under his control.”
That night, Farrelly said she felt Riley coerced her into having sex with him and he told her “we’re taking this to our graves.” In another incident, Farrelly and Shim said Riley forced them to kiss each other at his apartment and told them if they did, the team wouldn’t have to run a suicide mile drill at practice.
“This guy has a pattern,” Shim told The Athletic.
Morgan tried helping Shim file reports on the ongoing behavior she experienced, but they struggled to do so anonymously. When they emailed a complaint in 2015, an HR rep said Shim didn’t have a legal claim because she couldn’t produce corroborating evidence like text messages, which Riley urged her to delete. He was fired, but as has been the case in recent weeks, there was no mention of inappropriate behavior.
The Thorns released a statement 15 minutes before the NWSL’s stating that there “is much in the article that we are first hearing about now.”
The Thorns reiterated, as they had to The Athletic, that their investigation in 2015 did not show lawful activity but did “uncover clear violations of our company policies” and hence the firing. They reiterated they “fully shared” all findings with the league office.
NWSL Players issues demands, deadlines
The NWSL Players Association issued a statement that demanded for an independent investigation into the allegations. They also demanded in the statement that any league of club staff accused of conduct violating the anti-harassment policy put in place last spring be suspended immediately. Their final demand was that the league explain how Riley was hired again after leaving the Thorns due to an investigation into abusive coaching.
They set deadlines for all of it as Friday at 12 p.m. ET.
“Words cannot adequately capture our anger, pain, sadness and disappointment,” the NWSL Players statement read.
“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.
“The very lack of basic and fundamental protections that ensure dignity at work are part of what has led to stories like those that have come out this season. NWSL and its Clubs must act swiftly to implement changes that would protect current and future players. The opportunity to do this is right now in our first contract negotiation. In the face of systemic abuse, players demand greater control over their lives and careers.”
The association and the NWSL are currently in negotiations for the league’s first collective bargaining agreement. NWSL Players launched a #NoMoreSideHustles campaign in July highlighting low wages and the players lack of control over their soccer careers.
USWNT players speak out
Soccer players are coming out on Twitter with statements of support and demands for the NWSL to do better in the aspect of culture and player safety.
As well as Morgan, USWNT defender Becky Sauerbrunn issued a long statement.
It read in part:
“NWSL, it’s time to get your s*** together. We’ve been doing this for almost a decade now, with two prior leagues’ worth of experience beforehand to inform and guide us. To be where we are today is unacceptable. The league and every club have to do better. At a minimum, the league and clubs should heed the NWSLPA’s calls for further investigations and policy updates, and at best it needs to audit, overhaul and publicly discuss its plans to enforce player safety guidelines at both the league and club level. We should be leading in this space, not lagging behind.”
The NWSL is in its ninth season and is scheduled to play the NWSL championship in late November. While the USWNT is popular and brings in big TV ratings, the NWSL and leagues prior have not been able to break through the common struggles of a new sports entity and particularly the ingrained sexism that comes with a women’s league.
The allegations against Riley are only the latest of many against NWSL coaches and personnel this season. Linehan and Strang explained well why players have been silent for so long on the “Full Time with Meg Linehan” podcast.
“There has been this pressure baked into the system and players have this understanding of, if you speak up, you might be sending this entire thing, this entire house of cards, tumbling,” Linehan said. “And that is such a terrible pressure, I think.”