On Wednesday, the National Women’s Soccer League got back to playing ball, but it wasn’t business as usual. During the sixth minute of game time, the players on NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit stopped playing. They walked to the center of the pitch and linked arms for a full minute before the match resumed. Instead of confusion or boos, fans rose to their feet and cheered. This act of political protest has occurred—or will occur—in every NWSL game after a sexual harassment scandal rocked the league in late September.
The protests, and the raucous support from the stands, were acts of catharsis after the most difficult week in the history of the league, a time when revelations about sexual harassment and coercion by one coach spawned a spate of resignations and the cancellation of a weekend slate of games. The protests were also a blaring signal to the powers that be that the players, even though they were back on the field, were keeping up their struggle against abuses that have been discussed behind closed doors with little to no resulting action.
Now, following a September 30 investigative report from The Athletic in which players accused since-fired North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley—who has also coached two other teams, including the Portland Thorns—of preying on players, the rest of the league is making clear that they will not stop until the sport can be a truly safe space. In this case, two Thorns players, Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, went on the record with allegations that they were harassed by Riley in his hotel room and that Farrelly was coerced into sex with him. Riley denies all accusations, but the fallout has been overwhelming.
As mentioned, Riley has been canned. The league’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, has also stepped down. In a statement last Friday, she said, “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.”
Damning e-mail screenshots show that Baird had been contacted by Farrelly about the abuse and did not act. National team star Alex Morgan posted screenshots of e-mails between Baird and Farrelly that demonstrated this failure. Morgan also tweeted, “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.”
The repercussions go way beyond one coach. Games were stopped last weekend on advice from the NWSL Players Association, as fan protests were planned for outside and inside stadiums and player strikes seemed likely. The stories of Farrelly and Sham resonated in a way that demonstrates that Riley’s behavior is a case of more than just one bad apple. Other resignations and investigations have tumbled forward. The reasons for these resignations have been opaque. Steve Baldwin, CEO and managing partner of the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, left after allegations quickly emerged that he oversaw “a toxic workplace.” Portland general manager and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson was also placed on administrative leave “pending the results of the outside independent investigation, which is ongoing.” More resignations and investigations are expected.
The union tweeted the following statement along with the hashtag #NoMoreSilence: “We have taken the weekend’s pause to evaluate. We acknowledge that we will not process the pain of the last several days in one weekend or one week. In the midst of statements that leagues and clubs are quick to release, we have been listening to ourselves, and to one another.”
What makes this particularly agonizing is that there had been other investigations over the years of Riley for this very behavior, yet that was kept hidden when he was hired. North Carolina Courage owner and chairman Steve Malik said that he was “given assurances” that Riley was “in good standing.” He gave no details about who vouched for Riley or why he took this person at their word.
As Morgan said, this has been a case of “systemic failure from the league.” “We’ve now started to put these things in place by demand of players, not by the league being proactive,” she said. “Something we ask is for the league to start being proactive, not reactive. We’re asking for transparency.”
Morgan is right to refer to this as a systemic failure. It is a systemic failure that would have remained hidden if not for the courage of Farrelly and Shim as well as the solidarity expressed by every player saying enough is enough. This is a story of predation, but it is also a story of the power of players when they rally around one another.