The National Women’s Soccer League on Friday canceled five matches scheduled for this weekend as the league struggled to respond to a widening misconduct scandal in which several coaches were accused of abusing players, and the league faced charges that it had done little to protect its athletes.
The league announced the match cancellations in a brief statement that noted “the gravity of the events of the last week” had made it impossible to ask its teams to play.
“We have made this decision in collaboration with our players association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue,” Lisa Baird, the league’s commissioner, said in a statement.
The NWSL announces an update regarding this weekend's matches
Two head coaches accused of abusive behavior were fired this week alone, a third was dismissed for unspecified misconduct in August, and a fourth was allowed to leave his club amid player complaints about the way he spoke to and about players. The coach who was fired on Thursday, Paul Riley, who coached the North Carolina Courage to league championships in 2018 and 2019, was accused of coercing one of his former players into a sexual relationship.
The cancellations of this weekend’s matches were driven by pressure from the union representing the league’s players and public outrage from stars like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and dozens of other players, who vented their anger about their league to their large social media followings on Thursday.
On Thursday morning, the players’ union made a number of demands of the N.W.S.L. that it said had to be addressed by noon Eastern on Friday. Those included that the league begin an independent investigation into Riley; suspend any team or league staff member who had violated the league’s anti-harassment policy or failed to report a violation of it; and explain how Riley had been rehired in the league after being investigated for abusive conduct in 2015. By late Thursday night, the players had asked the league to cancel this weekend’s games.
Much of the attention paid to women’s soccer in the United States is focused on those who play for the national team and win World Cups, a group of players that includes — in Rapinoe, Morgan, Carli Lloyd and others — some of the most famous women’s athletes in the world. But the N.W.S.L. is mostly made up of their lesser-known club colleagues, players barely eking out a living playing soccer, and the precarity of their situation has made abuse difficult to tackle, players have said.
It also complicated any collective action the players wanted to undertake. Members of the women’s national team who play in the N.W.S.L. are not paid by their individual clubs, but by the United States Soccer Federation, and are therefore subject to the collective bargaining agreement signed with U.S. Soccer. According to that agreement, players may not engage in any strike or work stoppage, a clause that would also pertain to their employment in the N.W.S.L.
But the players never needed to initiate a formal work stoppage once the league, belatedly recognizing the urgency of the crisis, canceled the games instead.
The scandal had been growing for weeks. One N.W.S.L. team fired its coach at the end of August “for cause,” and another dismissed its coach earlier this week after an investigation into his treatment of his players. The incident that led to Friday’s announcement came Thursday morning, when The Athletic published an article that included allegations that Riley coerced a player into having sex with him; forced two players to kiss and then sent them unsolicited sexual pictures; and yelled at and belittled players.
The Athletic also reported Riley was let go from his head coaching job with the Portland Thorns, arguably the league’s most popular team, in 2015 in part because of violations of team policy but then did nothing to warn players when another team quickly rehired him.
Riley denied most of the allegations to The Athletic and did not respond to a request for comment from The New York Times. Hours after the accusations against him were published on Thursday morning, he was fired.
The players’ anger had been growing. On Tuesday, the N.W.S.L. concluded an investigation into another team, the Washington Spirit. The league did not publish a detailed report of its findings but it announced that the Spirit’s coach, Richie Burke, had been fired and would no longer be allowed to work in the N.W.S.L.
Only weeks earlier, a third coach, Christy Holly, the head coach for Racing Louisville, was fired for cause, and Alyse LaHue, the Gotham F.C. general manager, was fired for an unspecified violation of league policy. Holly has not spoken publicly about his firing, and LaHue’s lawyer has denied that she violated any league policies.
And in a conference call held with media Friday morning Bill Predmore, a minority owner and chief executive of O.L. Reign, the Seattle-area team that employs Rapinoe, discussed his hiring of Farid Benstiti, who had served as the team’s head coach until he resigned early this summer. According to the Washington Post, a formal complaint of verbal abuse was made about Benstiti, who had a history of making inappropriate comments in a previous coaching job. Predmore said he had asked Bensiti to resign after he was “told of the inappropriate comments by a player.”
“The decision to hire Farid was mine and I accept responsibility for that and I think in hindsight I got it wrong,” Predmore said. “How people wish to hold me accountable, I don’t think it’s for me to decide.”
In the announcement canceling the games, and as she faced pressure to leave or be removed from her post, Baird offered her own apology. “This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff,” she said, “and I take full responsibility for the role I have played.”
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