Coach controversy forces NWSL reckoning

Trigger Warning: Talk of sexual misconduct 

When news of Paul Riley’s sexual misconduct accusations first broke, my immediate reaction was unfortunately not one of surprise. I was of course heartbroken and angry for the survivors, but in the end, it was not unexpected, especially for women’s soccer. I played competitive soccer from the age of 11 to 18 for two prominent Chicago-based clubs. I did the whole travel-the-country National League thing, practiced with perennial national team favorites, knew the whole ECNL and DA saga and was coached by Rory Dames, current head coach of the Chicago Red Stars. I know the ins-and-outs of competitive girls soccer––I lived them for eight years. With that knowledge, I am here to tell you that although it can be an experience full of growth, sportsmanship, competition and friendship, it can also be one of body-shaming, sexualization, toxicity and abuse. To hear that the same environment was still in place at the pro level was not surprising, no matter how disheartening.

My time playing highly competitive soccer is not representative of all experiences, nor do I consider my playing days a wholly negative experience––I loved some of my coaches, I loved being pushed physically and mentally to excellence and it was a true privilege to play with my teammates, many of whom were able to afford college because of athletic scholarships. Even with these memorable and formative aspects, it is also a time I look back on with anxiety and shock. I used to see coaches, mostly men, comment on teammates’ and opponents’ bodies, ask about players’ dating lives, make inappropriate jokes about race and sexuality and verbally berate players as young as 11. It made all of us uncomfortable, but it was also the norm––half the time, we didn’t know better. We looked to these coaches––again, mostly men 30 or older––for general validation, for playing time, for opportunities with college coaches and we saw them at least 3-4 times a week. As young teenage girls, we were impressionable in the presence of the coaches, staples in our lives. So, we endured the inappropriate comments, the uneasiness for the sake of athletic excellence and acceptance. Hell, I would still push my body to the ends of the Earth for some of them to give me one more, “Good work, Molloy.” Yet looking back, I cringe at the commentary I heard and remember the fact that those players being picked apart by grown men were children. Again, there are good coaches and staff that will do anything to support and protect their players, but I also witnessed the darker underbelly of competitive youth sports, in which I witnessed more than one coach lose their job for inappropriate comments. 

This is why it really just wasn’t that startling to hear about Paul Riley, no matter how appalling it is. As first reported by Meg Linehan for The Athletic last Thursday, two of Riley’s former players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim accused him of sexual coercion and verbal abuse and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) of protecting him. Riley was fired from his head coach position at the North Carolina Courage shortly after the report was released, while League Commissioner Lisa Baird and General Counsel Lisa Levine also resigned. After the article in The Athletic exposed the league for knowing about the allegations against Riley and still allowing him to coach, the league is now undergoing a reckoning, having cancelled games this past weekend (CNN, 2021). Riley is not the first NWSL coach to be ousted this year, but the fourth. The Washington Spirit fired Head Coach Richie Burke last month for verbal and emotional abuse of players (Spirit CEO Steve Baldwin also just resigned this past Tuesday at request of players), while OL Reign dismissed Head Coach Farid Benstiti in July over inappropriate comments and Racing Louisville FC Head Coach Christy Holly resigned for unknown reasons last month (ESPN, 2021). In the cases of Riley, Burke and Farid, all three had complaints lodged against them before those that instigated their immediate and forced departures. It’s not an understatement to say it’s likely that we will read about a few more resignation letters from the NWSL before the year’s end.

It was announced on Monday that U.S. Soccer hired former acting Attorney General Sally Yates to investigate the abusive behavior and sexual misconduct allegations in the NWSL, while FIFA also as the league itself announced they will launch their own investigations (Axios, 2021). It’s disappointing that it took this long for professional soccer’s institutions to properly listen to these athletes, but it is even more frustrating how long these women felt pressure to remain silent for the sake of their careers and league. It took years for the league to acknowledge the harm that these young athletes were facing, and it wasn’t until they received pressure from the media and its biggest stars that they initiated any change. Beyond that, professional women’s soccer in the U.S. has been unstable as an institution, except for at the national team level. The NWSL itself is only nine years old, and there have been multiple league collapses in the history of professional women’s soccer. The financial pressure of holding together a young league discourages players from coming forward with evidence of institutional harm and abuse, but by neglecting these issues from the outset, the league only created more victims and delayed the inevitable about-face. What’s important now is that they acknowledge their mistakes and begin to change. Hopefully the league as a whole, and especially all the athletes it employs, will not lose in the process. 

Although the disclosure of Riley’s abuse has seemingly commenced the start of real change in the system, the toxic environment that is entwined into these professional and youth institutions will take a while to uproot. Committed and intentional innovation in the coaching, training, and support of these athletes needs to take place. In women’s soccer, the stars of the sport are leading the charge by backing survivors and introducing a new anti-harassment policy earlier this year (The Athletic, 2021). It is this type of leadership that is necessary at clubs at every level across the country. I know Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim appreciate it, and I know 15 year old me appreciates it.

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