Sports writer Zach Sabel discusses Riley’s sexual harassment and coercion reports and the effect it has on individual players and the league as a whole.
One of the world’s top women’s soccer leagues has been rocked by a scandal in the past week, bringing games to a halt for the past weekend and causing resignations to fly. On Sept. 30, the story broke of NWSL coach Paul Riley’s pattern of manipulations, sexual harassment and coercion. Players have accused Riley of abusing his position as coach, using his position to sleep with them, as well as other manipulations.
This had immense mental tolls on players like Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim who openly discussed their ordeal with Linehan. Sadly the experiences of these women seem to hardly be an isolated incident, with many players speaking of Riley’s power and influence within the women’s game, fearful to come out publicly and not wanting to draw any repercussions. It has been said that Riley on multiple occasions drank with players, asked them personal questions, made them lower their guard and in Farrelly’s case, coerced her to his hotel room to have sex with him after the team lost a championship game. She alleges this predatory behavior continued throughout their professional careers together.
Eventually, Farrelly would collapse on the field during a game for the Portland Thorns whom Riley coached at the time, with no apparent injuries. She realized the mental pain she was under due to Riley’s constant mental abuse. Reports of Riley’s abuse were sent to the league office, who denied having any knowledge and pretended to be shocked and horrified when the news broke publicly.
This misstep is just the latest in a long line of gaffes by the league. In the past two years, there have been a string of serious blunders. A few months ago, Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired from his position after he was found to have used abusive language towards players. Before that, during a North Carolina Courage game, a young child was misidentified as Courage player Jessica McDonald’s 9-year-old son, Jeremiah, when in fact he was not. This was the fault of a league-run broadcast. Former Sky Blue and Portland Thorns player Nadia Nadim alleged that Sky Blue, now Gotham FC, had forged her signature to sign a new contract to get more for her in a trade. Upon submitting what she stated as proof of the forgery, the league sided with the team. This instance of the league’s lack of care for its players compounded with the lying about knowing of sexual harassment claims against Riley have caused whatever shred of legitimacy Lisa Baird and the NWSL front office had. Baird finally resigned this past week after games were canceled due to the immense turmoil.
Baird’s resignation and Riley’s firing are a start, but they are nowhere near good enough. The league has failed its players and lost a lot of its credibility. I think there is a small chance this could lead to the death of the league down the line, causing irreparable harm to the women’s game in the USA, a sport in which we have been a traditional powerhouse internationally. With FIFA opening investigations into the NWSL handling of these issues, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the league’s future. For now, we can only hope for the best and hope the upcoming division 2 women’s league can do more right by its players.