Paul Riley was fired as head coach of the North Carolina Courage. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

Paul Riley

Richie Burke

Farid Benstiti

Christy Holly

Rory Dames

What do these five former National Women’s Soccer League coaches have in common?

They either were fired or resigned due to misconduct and/or abuse allegations in what turned into a tumultuous year for the 10-team league (it has since expanded to a dozen teams for 2022).

It seemed that no team was untouched by scandal as the league celebrated its ninth year as the longest American women’s professional soccer league in the wake of the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer.

The NWSL was a mess.

Not the players. We’re talking about some of the owners and team management.

The players were caught in the middle of these scandals and wound up as victims and pawns.

So where do we begin?

It might be better to summarize the year, incident by incident in chronological order as much as possible, to give it more context.

On July 2, Benstiti resigned as OL Reign head coach. Exactly three months later, Molly Hensley-Clancy fo the Washington Post reported that Reign CEO Bill Predmore had asked for Benstiti’s resignation. In the Post, Hensley-Clancy wrote that “Benstiti had been the subject of a formal complaint of verbal abuse made by a player, two sources with knowledge of the situation told The Post, after the French coach allegedly made inappropriate comments to players regarding their fitness and nutrition.”

On Aug. 10, Burke quit as Washington Spirit head coach due to health concerns and would be reassigned in the team’s front office. A day later, Hensley-Clancy reported that former Spirit defender Kaiya McCullough alleged that Burke’s racist language and verbal and emotional abuse caused her to leave the team.

The club suspended Burke before he was fired on Sept. 28 after an investigation by the league.

“After considering the substance of the report, and taking into account prior actions of the Spirit, the NWSL’s board of governors has determined that the Spirit and its ownership have failed to act in the best interests of the League,” the NWSL said in a statement. “The board has further concluded that representatives for the Washington Spirit will not be permitted to participate in League governance matters, effective immediately, and has initiated a process pursuant to which Washington Soccer Properties, LLC, must respond to the violation notice issued by the board within 14 days.”

Spirit players asked team owner Steve Baldwin on Oct. 5 to sell the club to co-owner Y Michele Kang.

On Aug. 31, Racing Louisville FC, a 2021 expansion team, said that Holly was terminated “for cause.” Holly once directed Sky Blue FC (now NJ/NY Gotham FC).

On Sept. 30, Meg Linehan of The Athletic reported that Riley, the North Carolina Courage head coach, had inflicted sexual coercion and emotional abuse on former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. Riley, who lived on Long Island for more than 30 years, was fired later that day.

According to a story, Farrelly played for Riley on the Philadelphia Independence, New York Fury and Portland Thorns. Farrelly said she “felt under his control.” She related several incidents in which she felt she was coerced into having sex with her coach.

“We, the players of the NWSL, stand with Sinead Farrelly, Mana Shim, Kaiya McCullough, and each of the players who have brought their stories into the light – both known and unknown. Words cannot adequately capture our anger, pain, sadness, and disappointment,” the NWSL said in a statement.

“To the players who suffer in silence, know that the Players Association holds a safe space for you. We stand ready to confidentially offer you resources and support. You are not alone.

“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.”

On Oct. 1, Lisa Baird resigned as commissioner. She had known about coach’s sexual harassment by coaches with players but did nothing about it.

“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played,” Baird said in a statement. “I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now.”

In wake of the Riley scandal, the league announced that matches scheduled for Oct. 2-3 were called off. The five matches were: Racing Louisville FC vs. NJ/NY Gotham FC, North Carolina Courage vs. Washington Spirit, Chicago Red Stars vs. Orlando Pride, Kansas City vs. Houston Dash and Portland Thorns FC vs. OL Reign.

On Nov. 22, two days after his team, the Chicago Red Stars, lost to the Spirit in the NWSL championship game, Dames resigned. Dames, who had guided the squad since 2011 when it was a member of the Women’s Premier Soccer League, had been the NWSL’s longest tenured coach.

Later that day, Hensley-Clancy of the Post reported that seven Red Star players, which included Christen Press, Jen Hoy, and Sam Johnson, alleged that Dames had been verbally and emotionally abusive as a coach for several years. The Post reported that Dames also sought inappropriate relationships with some players.

“I think Rory emotionally abuses players,” Press wrote in a formal complaint obtained by the Post. “He doesn’t have a safe distance between himself and his players. He uses his power and status as the coach to manipulate players and get close to them.”

On Oct. 6, the NWSLPA made eight demands to the league:

  1. Every coach, general manager, representative on the board of governors, and owner voluntarily submit to the Players Association’s independent investigation into abusive conduct.
  2. The scope of NWSL’s investigation announced on Sunday evening, Oct. 4, be expanded to include an investigation of each of the 12 NWSL clubs represented on the board of governors to determine whether any abuse, whether presently known or unknown, has occurred at any point in time.

 

  1. The scope of NWSL’s investigation further be expanded to determine whether any League Office staff, NWSL Club, or person in a position of power within NWSL neglected to investigate concerns of abuse raised by any player or employee at any point in time.

 

  1. The NWSL adopt an immediate “Step Back Protocol” whereby any person in a position of power (e.g. owner, representative on the board of governors, general manager, or management supervisor) at the time that a club either hired or separated from employment a coach who was, is, or will be under investigation for abuse be suspended from any governance or oversight role within NWSL.

 

  1. The NWSL immediately agree to disclose all investigative reports referenced in its statement of Oct. 3.

 

  1. The NWSL immediately agree to disclose to the Players Association any and all findings, conclusions, and reports are obtained pursuant to their statement of Oct. 3, including but not limited to the reopening of the 2015 Paul Riley investigation.

 

  1. The NWSL agrees to cooperate with the Players Association’s own independent investigation by a written email to Executive Director Meghann Burke by the close of business Wednesday, Oct. 13.

 

  1. The NWSL agrees that representatives of the Players Association have an opportunity to meet with potential commissioner candidates and have a meaningful opportunity to be heard in the selection of the next commissioner.

On Oct. 29, the NWSL agreed to the demands.

“Today is a major step in protecting player safety moving forward, but this is just the beginning,” a statement from the NWSLPA said.

On Dec. 15, the NWSLPA launched www.SupportThePlayers.NET, an emergency fund to meet the needs of women’s pro soccer players in crisis.

There was hope for the future.

On Oct. 18, Marla Messing, the CEO of the successful 1999 Women’s World Cup, was named interim CEO of the league.

“First and foremost, I am honored to have the opportunity to help lead the NWSL and fully embrace the abundantly clear need to transform the league so that player welfare is central to every discussion and decision,” Messing said in a statement. “I also want to commend the bravery and strength of each and every player in the league to demand the change that should be at the core of every organization. Gaining the trust of our players and uniting players and owners is central to my approach so that we can most effectively create systemic change.”

Gotham FC also had its issues. Only days before the start of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, the club changed its name from Sky Blue FC, angering some TV executives who were forced to change graphics at the last minute.

On July 16, the club announced in a Tweet that general manager Alyse LaHue had been sacked, a week prior (July 9). The team’s decision to fire LaHue was based on results of a league investigation into “a complaint of violation of league policy.” Yael Averbuch West, who was named interim GM, eventually took over fulltime.

On Aug. 23, Gotham FC announced that head coach Freya Coombe was leaving the team to direct Angel City FC, an expansion side that will start playing next year. Eight days later, Scott Parkinson was named head coach.

As it turned out, Angel City FC’s influence around Gotham FC continued when the league on Nov. 11 fined the expansion club $40,000 for tampering with NJ/NY Gotham FC forward Allie Long. Long, a former member of the U.S. women’s national team, is a native of Northport, N.Y. The $40K sanction was split between $20K in cash and another $20K in 2022 unfunded allocation money.

On Dec. 13, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the USWNT Players Association on Monday agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding to extend the Collective Bargaining Agreement through to and at least March 31, 2022. The CBA included a no-strike and no-lockout provisions.

The MOU also ended the USSF-backed NWSL allocation system, starting with next season. That means that the USWNT players won’t have any restrictions as to the league in which they play, according to the USWNTPA.

“Players who choose the NWSL will sign directly with the NWSL/NWSL club and will be employed by the NWSL, therefore becoming members of the NWSLPA,” a USWNTPA statement said.

That will allow USWNT players greater freedom in signing with teams, home and abroad. That could very well raise their salaries if multiple teams are interested.

There are questions whether the NWSL, will survive given the earth-shattering events and further financial responsibilities and burdens on the owners.

Perhaps a billionaire or two with the proper understanding of human condition will be willing to step in and purchase an existing team to ensure the league’s viability.

One thing is certain: The NWSL cannot afford another year of scandals.

Only time will tell.