U.S. Soccer to Hold Independent Investigation After Paul Riley Allegations in NWSL

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured Columnist IVOctober 4, 2021

A closeup detail shot of the ball being moved up the pitch during the first half of an NWSL soccer match between Gotham FC and the Houston Dash, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Harrison, N.J. Gotham FC won 1-0. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
AP Photo/Steve Luciano

The United States Soccer Federation is launching an independent investigation into alleged "abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women's professional soccer."

"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," the statement read in part.

U.S. Soccer @ussoccer

U.S. Soccer Retains Sally Q. Yates to Lead Independent Investigation <a href="https://t.co/r3YLoQ62Ls">pic.twitter.com/r3YLoQ62Ls</a>

The step comes following a report by The Athletic's Meg Linehan detailing allegations of sexual coercion and abuse against now-former North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley.

One of his former players, Sinead Farrelly, said he coerced her into having sex with him, while another, Mana Shim, said he persuaded her and Farrelly to kiss each other. Shim also said Riley would invite her to his apartment or hotel room for film sessions.

Riley told The Athletic, "I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players." He also denied bringing players to his hotel room to watch film.

Linehan's report only intensified the scrutiny directed toward the NWSL in recent weeks.

The Washington Post's Molly Hensley-Clancy reported former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke was verbally abusive toward his players and made multiple racially insensitive remarks. She spoke with multiple players who said they had left the team because of how Burke treated them.

Hensley-Clancy followed up with a more comprehensive investigation into the Spirit and detailed "a toxic work culture for female employees."

The report alleged team owner Steve Baldwin "was insistent on hiring staff from his own circles." Chief executive officer Larry Best was allegedly one such hire, having coached Baldwin's daughter at the youth level. According to Hensley-Clancy, Best said one Spirit player should be nicknamed "Dumb Broad" and called another "J.G.," which was short for "Japanese Girl."

The NWSL said it launched an investigation into the Spirit under its new anti-harassment policy.

Linehan noted how the anti-harassment policy wasn't in place when Riley's alleged coercion and abuse toward Farrelly and Shim occurred. In addition, Shim didn't have an avenue through which to anonymously file a complaint against Riley with the Portland Thorns' human resources department.

In response to The Athletic's investigation, former commissioner Lisa Baird issued a statement that may have compounded the breakdown of trust between the NWSL's players and league officials.

The NWSL completed an investigation into Riley in 2015, prior to Baird taking over as commissioner. She said Thursday she "was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic this morning."

However, Farrelly and Shim reached out to the league earlier this year about their experiences with Riley and asked for a new inquiry. Orlando Pride star Alex Morgan shared a copy of an email correspondence between Farrelly and Baird in April, meaning Baird may have known about Riley's alleged misconduct as far back as the spring:

Alex Morgan @alexmorgan13

(3/3) <a href="https://t.co/BkGlHsPiV4">pic.twitter.com/BkGlHsPiV4</a>

Baird also received criticism for pointing to a league mandate requiring league and team staffers to complete training by U.S. Center for SafeSport. Some questioned how SafeSport training would address the problems that have emerged throughout the NWSL:

Grant Wahl @GrantWahl

The NWSL choosing organizations like SafeSport to deal with abuse allegations and Rise to Win (founded by Trump fundraiser Steve Ross) to deal with racism allegations reveals a league that's still making errors now after so many systemic failures led it to this point. <a href="https://t.co/WQfHK6hgtL">https://t.co/WQfHK6hgtL</a>

Diana Moskovitz @DianaMoskovitz

The NWSL said it's reporting ex-coach Paul Riley—whom multiple players have accused of sexual coercion or sexual misconduct—to SafeSport. <br><br>But what's SafeSport's record on handling these cases? Here's a recap from a post I did recently on Defector: <a href="https://t.co/Y2GlIPjXdA">https://t.co/Y2GlIPjXdA</a> <a href="https://t.co/oezK9OnhCC">pic.twitter.com/oezK9OnhCC</a>

Baird has since resigned, and Linehan reported NWSL general counsel Lisa Levine has been removed as well.

The NWSL announced Sunday its board of governors formed an executive committee "to manage oversight of the league's front office operations." The league also retained the services of an outside law firm to lead "several critical investigative and reform initiatives to protect players and staff, and the environments in which athletes live, train, and compete to give athletes the agency and ability to safely report misconduct of any form."