How women’s soccer, and the NWSL, got here

The IX: Soccer Monday with Annie M. Peterson, October 4, 2021

First off, if you have been triggered by the details that have come out surrounding the abuse and misconduct in the NWSL, please, read no further.

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I spoke to a friend on Friday who just couldn’t absorb any more, and it really made me pause. I think we sometimes get so caught up in the “story” that we forget the impact it may have on survivors. The main thing is to take care of yourself.

I’m also changing this up just a bit. Because this is a long post with lots of links, I’m not going to include an interview. Hope you don’t mind. I just didn’t want this already unwieldy post to get more unwieldy.

Meg Linehan broke her story for The Athletic on Thursday morning. By Friday evening, Paul Riley had been fired, FIFA had opened an investigation, U.S. Soccer had opened an investigation, and of course, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.

It’s been said by many, but the NWSL is in the midst of a reckoning. But it’s bigger than that. Women’s soccer has been grappling with stories of abuse and mistreatment for several years. So for this edition of The IX, I wanted to take a step back and look at the bigger picture — and amplify the stories of other women, including women of color, who don’t have the platform that NWSL players have.

I want to point out that this is not a reckoning FOR women’s soccer, it’s a reckoning FOR the powerful taking advantage of vulnerable women and girls.

In the words of Jess Fishlock: “I think we’re at a point now where we’re just done.”

The Afghanistan women’s national soccer team is obviously the most extreme case. In 2018, Suzanne Wrack recounted the stories of several players who revealed horrific abuse at the hands of Afghan federation president Keramuudin Karim. Karim was banned from football for life.

Last year, Haitian soccer federation president Yves Jean-Bart was also banned for life following accusations of systematic sexual abuse of women, some underage. But the investigation into the technical director is still, remarkably, unresolved, per the Guardian.

In Colombia, the coach of the under-17 women’s team, was accused of inappropriate behavior with players by one of the team’s trainers. And a minor claimed she had been sexually abused, sparking an investigation by FIFA and COMNEBOL.

Beyond that, there’s Danielle Foxhoven’s story physical and emotional abuse encountered when she played in Russia (detailed in Gwendolyn Oxenham’s excellent book Under the Lights and In the Dark: Untold Stories of Women’s Soccer.)

In Canada, Ciara McCormack wrote in her blog about the abuse endured with the Vancouver Whitecaps women. Former coach Bob Birarda was charged last December with six counts of sexual exploitation, two counts of sexual assault, and one count of child luring.

And there are still coaches who have faced credible allegations of abuse that are still on the job. Several former Cal players came forward late last year alleging verbal and mental abuse in that program. Grand Canyon’s coach Derek Leader stepped down after several players alleged physical and mental abuse. Last I saw he was coaching in a youth academy.

Then there’s the NWSL. Riley, Richie Burke, Farid Benstiti, perhaps others. Utah’s Craig Harrington made inappropriate comments. And Christy Holly was fired for “cause,” whatever that means.

I’m so tired.

I’d like to say thank you to so many brave women, among them Sinead Farrelly, Mana Shim, Kaiya McCollough, Khalida Popal, Ciara McCormack and all the others who have come forward, often at great personal risk.

And then I’d like to thank the reporters who told their stories: Linehan, Molly Hensley-Clancy, who broke the Burke story, Suzanne Wrack, Katie Strang and Steph Yang. I’m in awe of all of you.

And thanks too to Alex Morgan, who pressured the NWSL into adopting the anti-harassment policy. And she kept receipts!

So what’s next? Well two big announcements came yesterday.

The NWSL’s board appointed Amanda Duffy, Angie Long and Sophie Sauvage to serve on an executive committee to oversee league operations.

The league also launched a set of investigations and initiatives:

  • An independent review of practices and policies at the league and club levels — including workplace policies for each club in the league, league-mandated anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, and processes for identifying, investigating, and enforcing violations of those policies — to identify and reform deficiencies.  The league will work with the players association to ensure that the results of these team and league reviews will serve as a road map to ensure safe environments for players and staff.
  • Comprehensive policies and procedures created for the league and all member clubs to ensure moving forward that there is a systematic, transparent, and effective execution of any harassment or workplace conduct issues.
  • A reopening of the 2015 investigation regarding former NWSL coach Paul Riley, including a review of the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Portland Thorns FC, and his subsequent hiring by Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage.
  • A review of the available investigative reports related to all historical complaints of discrimination, harassment, or abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual) in the NWSL, and where necessary, a reopening of the respective investigation, or the initiation of a new adjudication process.
  • The continuation of ongoing investigations initiated under the NWSL’s current anti-harassment policy, and the recommendation of sanctions where appropriate.

Not sure what this will yield, but it’s a start.

U.S. Soccer then announced that Sally Yates, yes, that Sally Yates, would head its investigation. Again, a start.

Will more people be fired/banned? Will the league even survive? I don’t know. But it’s clear that it’s no longer business as usual for the NWSL, or for women’s soccer in general. The powerful who have gotten away with mistreatment are on notice. The players are done with this. So are the supporters.

This broke this morning: Thorns owner Merritt Paulson issued an open letter to fans about how the Thorns handled Riley. Here’s what he said.

The safety and wellbeing of our players – physically, emotionally and psychologically – always has been and will continue to be our top priority. Given my personal commitment to women’s soccer and to building one of the best teams in the world, I speak for our entire organization in saying that we are reeling and devastated by the abuse that Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly endured while playing for the Portland Thorns under former coach Paul Riley.  

We applaud not only their bravery in coming forward, but their determination to be heard. It should not have been this hard, nor taken this long, at great personal and professional toll to the survivors.

As a team, an organization and as individuals, we at the Portland Thorns have zero tolerance for harassment or discrimination of any kind. Within hours of receiving a complaint against our then coach six years ago from Mana – the first and only we have ever received from anyone – we: (1) placed Coach Riley on immediate suspension; (2) conducted an investigation of the claims that, within a matter of days, led to his termination; and (3) shared everything we learned in the investigation with the NWSL

But we then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy. I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.  

Let me be unequivocal in saying that I as team owner and we as an organization disavow the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach, whose actions we forcefully condemn.  

Ultimately, we could have done more, which is particularly hard to say as the team that we have held as the highest standard in women’s professional soccer in the world. I apologize to Mana, Sinead and everyone else who is hurting as a result. I welcome the investigations that will be forthcoming. I welcome this moment for positive change in both our own organization and the NWSL, and fully intend to help drive it. It should have come sooner, but come it must.

Paulson went on to describe what the Timbers/Thorns organization is doing in the wake of all of this, which includes some of the initiatives the NWSL put in place. The organization hired its own lawyer to look into how Riley’s departure in 2015 was handled. Paulson’s open letter did not address the role of GM Gavin Wilkinson or calls for his ouster.

And it should be noted that there’s been nothing from the Courage outside of the team’s original statement.

Anyway, stay tuned. Developments are happening not just on a daily basis, but an hourly basis, it seems. Like this statement from Canada Soccer, also this morning:

And this from WaPo’s Steven Goff:

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Because I can always use the clicks, here’s my story on Sunday’s announcement by the NWSL and appointment of Sally Yates.

My story with AP’s Rob Harris from Friday with Baird’s resignation, FIFA and U.S. Soccer investigations.

This seems like forever ago but here’s The Washington Post’s story on Richie Burke’s dismissal. Molly Hensley-Clancy broke this story, well worth a subscription to the WP.

Steph Yang’s brilliant story for The Athletic on how abusive coaches keep abusing and how the system allows it.

Ciara McCormack wrote this story recounting the abuses in women’s soccer for the Guardian.

Axios on U.S. Soccer’s appointment of Sally Yates

The Athletic’s report on Sunday’s announcements.

NPR spoke to Meghann Burke, head of the NWSLPA. Burke also spoke to CNN International.

Howard Megdal on the importance of the NWSLPA in this reckoning.

Pardeep Cattry for The Equalizer on the NWSL’s leadership crisis.

Women’s leagues in Europe protest plan for a World Cup every two years.

Claire Watkins’ column for The Defector

Alex Azzi for NBC’s On Her Turf about the NWSLPA’s demands. Alex does good work, and On Her Turf did a roundup of news in women’s sports, well worth your time. Hope this is a daily/weekly fixture!

Jayda Evans with the Seattle Times writes about what went on at the Reign under Benstiti, and Amber Brooks’ experience.

Steph Yang for The Athletic on what it’s like to be an NWSL referee.

Chelsea’s Emma Hayes spoke to Suzanne Wrack about the NWSL revelations in this story for the Guardian.

Kurt Streeter for the New York Times says its time to start respecting NWSL players.

Just Women’s Sports recounts what McCall Zerboni and Erin McLeod told NBC about the scandal. NBC says the NWSL cannot be considered a safe workplace.

And Finally, there’s this, for everyone who wants to support the Afghan players. A chance to do something to support women:

Written by Annie Peterson