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  • Victoria A. Brownworth

NWSL Players Reveal Sexual Abuse by Coaches, Cancel Games

October 6, 2021 Philadelphia

The #MeToo movement has come late to women’s sports. On Sept. 15, four of the top U.S. women gymnasts testified at a Senate hearing about how they had been victimized by longtime USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of hundreds of counts of sexual abuse of gymnasts in 2017 and 2018.

Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols also testified about how when they contacted the FBI, nothing was done in response. Nichols was the first to file a complaint in 2015. The abuse continued long after Nichols’ complaint, with Nassar victimizing as many as 100 more women and girls in his care after she first spoke out.

On Sept. 30, it was revealed that the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) also has a sexual abuse problem. The NWSL is where the majority of the U.S. Women’s National Team players compete domestically.

In a searing expose, soccer reporter Meg Linehan at The Athletic disclosed sexual misconduct and abuse against women players. Linehan detailed the actions of North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley and the abuse against players Sinead Farrelly and Meleana “Mana” Shim. Both women were coerced to kiss other players for Riley’s sexual gratification and Farrelly reports having been forced to have sex with Riley and another teammate. Riley was fired on October 1.

Both Shim and Farrelly say they were groomed and pressured by Riley for sexual favors. Farrelly, who is from Havertown, Pa., said that Riley told her she was “too hot to be a lesbian” when she and a teammate began dating.

The response to Linehan’s story was immediate. The NWSL called off five scheduled weekend games and also announced that Commissioner Lisa Baird, accused of ignoring players’ complaints of abuse over years, had resigned Oct. 1. In addition, general counsel Lisa Levine was fired.

Now, like women’s gymnastics, women’s soccer is under much-needed scrutiny. There has already been furor over the low salaries paid to female players who are unarguably the best in the world. With sexual abuse and misconduct against NWSL players exposed as having been ongoing for years, players are coalescing to demand a reckoning and real action.

Since August, three male coaches in the league have been fired over abuse and misconduct — verbal, emotional and sexual.

Riley is accused of sexual coercion and inappropriate conduct. Allegations against Riley include luring players into his bed and forcing them to kiss each other. Riley was also accused of disparaging Shim, Farrelly and other players for their sexual orientation. Soccer is known for having a significant lesbian presence, as evidenced at the Tokyo Olympics.

U.S. Soccer called his behavior “repulsive and unacceptable.”

On Oct. 3, U.S. Soccer announced via Twitter that it had hired former acting U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates to investigate “allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct.”

The statement says, “U.S. Soccer takes seriously its responsibility to vigorously investigate the abhorrent conduct reported, gain a full and frank understanding of the factors that allowed it to happen and take meaningful steps to prevent this from happening in the future.”

For some, like out lesbian Olympian Megan Rapinoe, who led the equal pay fight in 2019, the latest revelations were too much. On Sept. 30, after the revelations in Linehan’s story about the abuse of Shim and Farrelly, Rapinoe tweeted to her nearly one million followers, “Men, protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN. Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll.”

Alex Morgan, one of the players who has made accusations of abuse, said on Twitter, “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.”

Morgan posted screenshots of Farrelly’s April email letter to Baird detailing abuse she experienced, and Baird’s response — which states that NWSL has an anti-harassment policy and that Farrelly’s complaints were investigated and dismissed.

Baird closes her letter with, “I wish you the best.”

In response to Baird’s letter, Rapinoe wrote, “Never once during this whole time was the right person protected. Not Mana, not Sinead, not us not the players not the little girls who will become us not the big girls who already are us not any of US. This statement [by Baird] is beyond disrespectful.”

Becky Sauerbrunn, the captain of the U.S. national team, said in a statement on Twitter. ““NWSL, it’s time to get your s— together…To be where we are today is unacceptable. The league and every club have to do better.”

The National Women’s Soccer League Players Association (NWSLPA), stated on Oct. 5 that “two head coaches accused of abusive behavior were fired last week, another in September, and a fourth coach resigned in July amid player complaints.”

The NWSLPA said in a statement, “We refuse to be silent any longer. Our commitment as players is to speak truth to power. We will no longer be complicit in a culture of silence that has enabled abuse and exploitation in our league and in our sport.”

In addition to demanding NWSLPA investigate allegations of abuse, the players association asks that “any staff member who violated or failed to report a violation of their anti-harassment policy” be suspended.

The NWSLPA also set up an anonymous hotline for players to report abuse and is offering mental health assistance for current, former or future players.

In recent years women’s soccer has risen in popularity, with games on broadcast TV. Rapinoe has become a spokesperson for various products, including Subway sandwiches and Victoria’ Secret lingerie. The Washington Post notes that “an influx of high-profile investors including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Chelsea Clinton has bought into the league’s potential for growth” in the past decade.

Yet in 2021, all but one of the NWSL coaches are men and the majority of the league’s hierarchy are also men. The NWSL restricts players’ rights, even though salaries rarely crest $30,000 per year. And until the harassment protocol established not by Baird but through the work of players like Morgan and Rapinoe, there was no clear mechanism for reporting abuse.

Richie Burke, Christy Holly and Farid Benstiti are three other male coaches fired for cause from their teams (the Washington Spirit, Racing Louisville, and OL Reign, respectively).

NWSL hired the law firm Covington & Burling to investigate claims brought against male coaches. FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, is conducting an investigation into the abuse allegations.

According to NWSL, Yates will be granted “full autonomy” to all resources within U.S. Soccer, which stated that it “remains committed to sharing the results of the investigation when it concludes.”

NWSL resumed games on Oct. 6.

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