Opinion: The abuse in the NWSL is disgusting, but not surprising

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Ella Endo/The Occidental

Content warning: This article contains discussions of physical and sexual abuse.

The Athletic published reports of the sexual abuse and coercion that Paul Riley committed during his tenure as head coach of many professional women’s soccer teams, including the Portland Thorns and the North Carolina Courage Sept. 30. Ex-NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim brought these reports to the attention of front offices, commissioners and other league officials, but by no means are they the only survivors of Riley’s abuse.

As a fan of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and soccer player myself, these reports were deeply disturbing but unsurprising. The systems of complacency within the NWSL run deep.

These accusations come weeks after another article detailed physical, sexual and racially charged abuse by Richie Burke, brought forward by Kaiya McCollough. This season alone, six of 10 head coaches in the league have been dismissed for some form of abuse and sexual misconduct — a volume that feels overwhelming. Of these coaches and managers fired, many of them had prior allegations that had either been dismissed or ignored by the league. Yet, these men continued to be employed and placed into positions of power.

When Burke was fired Sept. 28, the Spirit announced he was stepping back for health reasons. Farid Benstiti was looking for “other opportunities.” Christy Holly was let go “for cause.” And when the Thorns severed ties with Riley after the 2015 season, after Shim and Farrelly had brought their allegations of abuse against him to the league, they thanked him for his tenure.

Even when the league and its teams don’t ignore the abuse it’s not enough to just apologize — like Bill Predmore of OL Reign did in a press conference Oct. 1. “Getting it wrong” is not an excuse when there are known, credible accusations against an abuser.

When the facts all stack up, they seem overwhelming. How could anyone have missed all the evidence? Who could have been so negligent that they knowingly put young women and players under the direct supervision of predators? The NWSL did. The roots of the NWSL, in its ninth season, are entrenched in corruption and greed.

It was not until early 2021 that the NWSL enacted an anti-harassment policy, the very policy that eventually led to the dismissal of over half of its current coaches. In a workplace, people should be guaranteed safety and respect, and at least up until the implementation of this policy, safety wasn’t seen as a priority in the NWSL. With the details of Shim, McCollough and Farrelly’s abuse coming to light, this becomes crystal clear.

When Farrelly brought her case to the Thorns general managers and owners Merritt Paulson and Gavin Wilkinson — who was recently placed on administrative leave — they said they launched an investigation into the reports. However, Farrelly was never informed of the results, and they were never made public as Riley was given another head coaching position in the league. With nowhere to go, and no anonymous reporting or anti-harassment policies in place, players become trapped in abusive situations.

It’s time that players not only in the NWSL, but across the world, start to take their power back. As a women’s soccer player, an avid follower of the league and even a writer for the Thorns I want to see them thrive. I know the feelings of joy that come with playing, and I also know of the immense feelings of pressure to want to please your coach in order to earn your spot on the starting lineup. I can only imagine how terrifying it is when that same coach who controls your livelihood, salary and job, is also using their position of power to abuse you.

There is no perfect solution to where the NWSL should go next, but the first step is transparency. The league has a responsibility to keep its players safe but given its incompetency to do so thus far, it has largely fallen on players to advocate for their own safety and welfare. In the NWSL Players Association statements, players are calling for the total release of the results of all investigations conducted, as well as new investigations into the current teams to see if there’s more abuse that’s being hidden. As fans, we should support players by echoing their demands and calling for systemic change in the NWSL.

If the Thorns or the NWSL had done their due diligence in 2015, they would have revoked Riley’s license immediately and never let him coach again. We need to cause an uproar at the fact that a sexual predator was able to retain a job for so long.

In response to this scandal, six of the NWSL teams that played Oct. 6 joined arms in the center circle in a moment of silence for six minutes to represent the six years of silence that Shim, Farrelly and who knows how many other victims had to suffer alone. It was a harrowing moment of collective action, and reminded me while watching that even though soccer is incredible, fun and often a welcome distraction from the negativity of the news cycle, it’s really a microcosm of society –– flaws and all.

Soccer is so much more than just a game. In times like this, it’s important to remember that we must protect the players who make the game as great and beautiful as it always has been.