It was an exchange from earlier this year, one documented in Meg Linehan’s must-read piece at The Athletic detailing the pattern of abuse alleged by multiple players against longtime coach Paul Riley.
But it might as well have been a different century from the National Women’s Soccer League that exists now, one that will fall silent on a scheduled late-season weekend after the NWSL Players Association requested and was granted a weekend away from soccer.
Sinead Farrelly had raised these concerns with the league back in 2015 — yet Riley had been hired, and hired again since that investigation. When Farrelly asked for more details, noting her concern for Riley’s current players, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird responded by simply declaring the matter had been investigated, and concluded: “I wish you the best.”
But a league with players united cannot be kept whole with assurances and good wishes, as the NWSL found out throughout the past two days, reckoning with a very different response from its players.
Linehan’s piece published early Thursday. By the end of the day, Riley was out at North Carolina, where he’d been coaching the Courage, and the efforts to PR-statement their way out of the current moment of elevating these concerns publicly had proven insufficient.
Compare the generalities of this initial statement from NWSL with the PA’s demands.
The league issued a statement from Baird at 3:21 PM ET on Thursday, many hours after a story that could not have come as a surprise published. Baird said: “I was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic this morning. The league, in concert with the North Carolina Courage, has reacted swiftly in response to these new allegations, and former head coach Paul Riley has been terminated. Concurrently, we are reporting these new allegations to the US Center for SafeSport for investigation. A safe and secure work environment is a top priority for the league and its collective ownership. The league has in place a comprehensive anti-harassment/anti-discrimination policy… We ask our players and all associated with the league to raise their concerns to us, as we continue to make our league a safe, positive, and respectful environment for our players, clubs, staff, and fans.”
Both the first part of the statement — the allegations that not only Linehan but, indeed, the players themselves, had raised to the league — and the last proved particularly problematic to a broad cross-section of the women’s soccer community. Asking people to “raise their concerns to us” without taking responsibility, even acknowledging, the story which documented what raising those concerns had led to in the past was almost hard to fathom.
The NWSLPA had already thrown down the gauntlet of what had to happen next earlier that day. In a statement, the PA said the following on Thursday:
“We, as players, demand the following:
1. NWSL initiate an independent investigation into the allegations published by The Athletic this morning pursuant to the Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment by 12:00 p.m. EST on Friday, October 1, 2021.
2. Any League or Club Staff who are accused of conduct, no matter when it occurred, that violates the current Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment or any mandated reporter who failed to report the alleged violation be suspended immediately, pending the results of the above referenced investigation, and in any event no later than 12:00 p.m. EST on Friday, October 1, 2021.
3. NWSL disclose how Paul Riley was hired within NWSL after departing from another NWSL Club subsequent to an investigation into abusive conduct during the bargaining session scheduled for Friday, October 1, 2021.”
See if you notice any difference in the specificity of those two responses.
Here’s the difference between May and September: the NWSLPA is now a fully functioning unit, in the midst of CBA negotiations. This work focuses members on collective issues that extend well beyond pay, though compensation is obviously part of the equation. But the safety of its players is a paramount concern, and when evidence of present indifference to that safety comes to light, what followed is no surprise.
We have seen stories like Riley’s before. They are a blight upon the arc of progress in women’s soccer, sometimes whispered, often accepted by too many as the cost of growth. Absent a union to press forward on what Linehan revealed, the familiar cycle might well have ended at outrage once more.
The league wisely, on Friday, acquiesced to the PA’s request that the weekend’s games be cancelled. But it is difficult to imagine the players would have played whether given permission or not. And that’s where it’s useful to define our terms as we consider what must happen next.
The league is not, in truth, some independent entity making decisions, then passing them along to the owners and players. The league is by and large a collective decision-making body of the owners. It’s why the league announcement last week was so striking, that “representatives for the Washington Spirit will not be permitted to participate in League governance matter” in an investigation stemming from a different coaching abuse matter. No, not that one. Or that one, either.
By Friday, Baird had found a personal reckoning in her second stab at a statement, saying: “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. 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. Our entire league has a great deal of healing to do, and our players deserve so much better. We have made this decision in collaboration with our players association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue.”
It is likely impossible to fully define how much the league’s failures to protect its players have expedited both the need and success of the PA’s union drive. But it is clear in the plain language of how the NWSLPA shared details of why it asked for a cancellation of this weekend’s games.
“Yesterday was a profoundly painful day for us, as players, and so many. For many players, the pain has stretched across years. The outpouring of support we have felt has been a beacon of light on a dark day.
“Last night, we made the difficult decision to ask NWSL to postpone this weekend’s games to give players space to process this pain. Commissioner Baird and the Board of Governors worked overnight to grant that request.
“This was not an easy decision, as there is nothing we love more than playing for our fans. Suiting up for game day under the lights in front of wildly supportive fans is what brings us joy. We refuse to let that joy be taken from us. We also recognize, however, that mental health struggles are real. We know that many of our fans made travel plans, scheduled the night off, or juggled family commitments to attend our games and that this decision impacts you, too. We hope that fans will understand and support us through this time. This is far from over for any of us.
“As players, we hope that those who read this statement will hear that it is ok to not be ok. It is ok to take space to process, to feel, and to take care of yourself. In fact, it’s more than ok. It’s a priority.
“That, as players, will be our focus this weekend.”
A group that has been asked to shoulder so much of the burden of growing women’s soccer at every turn gets to stop, and breathe, and think. And there is so much more work to do. Whatever comes next, clearly, will happen from the collective will of the group. The days of a single voice starting or ending a push for justice in the National Women’s Soccer League are over.