North Carolina Courage Coach Terminated over Abuse Allegations

The NWSL’s Lack of Player Protection Can No Longer be Ignored

Megan Swedberg, Staff Writer

On September 20, a seismic wave of abuse allegations shook the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), resulting in the aftershock of Paul Riley being fired from his position as the head coach for Courage, Lisa Baird resigning from League Commissioner, and weekend soccer matches being cancelled.

In a story published in The Athletic, an online sports news coverage platform, ex-NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Meleanan Shim (among several others) accused Riley of sexual coercion, harassment, and belittling behavior. Farrelly claimed she had been coerced on multiple occasions into engaging in sex with Riley, with both Farrelly and Shim reported having been pressured to kiss each other in front of him after a night out drinking. Just hours after these allegations surfaced via the publishing of The Athletic article, Riley was released from his position as the head coach of North Carolina Courage.

Riley, who coached three franchises over the span of eight seasons and most recently led Courage to NWSL titles in 2018 and 2019, denied such allegations in an email to The Athletic, writing that he had “never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players.” However, his denial did not stop his coaching license from being suspended and his contract being terminated.

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird responded swiftly to the report published in The Athletic, claiming over Twitter that she was “shocked and disgusted” by the allegations. She further wrote that “Concurrently, we are reporting these new allegations to the US Center for SafeSport for investigation. A safe and secure work environment is a top priority for the league and its collective ownership…We ask our players and all associated with the league to raise their concerns to us, as we continue to make our league a safe, positive, and respectful environment for our players, clubs, staff, and fans.” A day later, Baird handed in her resignation.

While Baird claimed that the safety of players is a top priority of the league, the players themselves claim that past accusations of abuse were overlooked by the league. American Soccer Player Alex Morgan wrote in a tweet, “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 players from this abuse.”

In 2015, Riley had been released from another team in the league, the Thorns, for similar misconduct. The Thorns, while having filed a report with the league about Riley’s misconduct, refused to publicly state why he had been fired. Months later he was rehired by another team. 

In light of allegations towards Riley resurfacing, the owner of the Thorns made a statement, saying, “I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”

Meghan Klingenberg, who played for the Thorns, commented via Twitter that, “It is enraging that the N.W.S.L. knew about this abuse and allowed the abuser to be rehired. Why do we have to put up with inadequate conditions and unsafe work environments while abusers get protection, good pay and a new hunting ground to prey on young women?” 

The unsafe and vulnerable workplace Klingenberg describes above is further highlighted by the fact that according to the Today News, Riley is just one of 10 head coaches in the league fired due to accusations of abuse since August. 

What does this say about the present power dynamics in the league between coaches and players? What does this say about the league’s ability and willingness to protect its players? There is a troubling pattern of misconduct here that has not been effectively managed by the NWSL, putting professional women soccer players throughout the league at risk.

With this pattern in mind, players are demanding that the NWSL takes accountability for failing to create a safe environment for them to play. While the NWSL has been a source of national entertainment for years, considered by many to be the greatest women’s soccer league of all time, it’s treatment of players has been anything but great. Change is long overdue.