The allegations of sexual coercion and emotional abuse by former NWSL coach Paul Riley – first reported by the Athletic – sparked a major reckoning over player player safety and treatment in women’s soccer.
But while Riley’s alleged abuse received the largest share of headlines and national media attention, issues in the NWSL extend far beyond one individual or team.
During the 2021 NWSL season, four of the league’s 10 teams have seen head coaches either fired or forced to resign as a result of non-soccer reasons, including alleged sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, racist remarks, and perpetuating a toxic work culture. A fifth team – NJ/NY Gotham FC – terminated its general manager.
Players have also condemned racism in the NWSL, a league where the majority of coaches, owners, and executives are white men.
The NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) – which is currently attempting to negotiate the league’s first ever collective bargaining agreement – has demanded an end to “systemic abuse plaguing the NWSL.”
To help unpack how the NWSL reached this moment of reckoning – and to highlight the in-depth reporting that brought these league-wide issues to light – here is a timeline of key off-the-field moments from the 2021 NWSL season. While this timeline focuses on 2021, the issues exposed in recent weeks were built on a foundation years in the making.
(If you’re looking to watch players on the field, this TV guide includes details on how to view every regular season NWSL game in October 2021.)
NWSL introduces anti-harassment policy
April 2021: The NWSL created its first anti-harassment policy. The very first line of the policy states the NWSL’s commitment to “creating and maintaining a safe and respectful work environment that is free from all forms of harassment (including sexual harassment) and discrimination.”
As the Athletic‘s Meg Linehan would later report, 240 players – organized by Alex Morgan – had sent then-NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird a letter in March 2021 demanding “nine specific elements to ensure safe and inclusive workplaces, including multiple avenues to submit complaints and assurances that the league would protect any player from retaliation.” The league’s new anti-harassment policy was established as a result of these demands.
After the new anti-harassment policy was introduced, former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim reached out to Baird to request a new investigation into North Carolina head coach Paul Riley‘s behavior. Their request was denied (more below).
NWSL player Sarah Gorden details racial profiling
April 10, 2021: Chicago Red Stars player Sarah Gorden posted on Twitter that she and her boyfriend were racially profiled after an April 9th game against the Houston Dash.
“My boyfriend came to our game against the Houston Dash. After the game he came down the steps to talk to me. We were immediately [before he was close to me] followed by security and told he would be arrested if he came close,” Gorden tweeted. “At first I didn’t realize this was a racial issue until I saw white Houston Dash players surrounding the stadium talking closely to their family and we were the only ones targeted,” Gorden continued.
Later in the day, the Houston Dash issued a statement that – rather than addressing Gorden’s claim of racial profiling – highlighted the violation of COVID-19 protocols. “[W]e would like to assure [Gorden] and the Red Stars organization that our staff was entirely focused on COVID safety,” the initial statement read.
April 12, 2021: The Houston Dash published a second statement, which noted that the “initial statement was off the mark” and apologized to Gorden. The second statement – which did not directly acknowledge Gorden’s claim of racial profiling – went on to say that the club was cooperating with the league’s formal investigation.
April 13, 2021: The NWSL officially announced an investigation “under its anti-discrimination policy” to look into Gorden’s allegations. According to the league, the investigation began on April 10, a day after the incident.
Also on April 13: The NWSL announced multiple decisions made by its disciplinary committee. Included in the list are fines for NJ/NY Gotham City and the Chicago Red Stars for “violation of a league directive.”
While the NWSL did not specify the reason for the fines, multiple reports indicated that they were the result of Red Stars co-owner Sarah Spain and then-Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue expressing their support for Gorden publicly on Twitter after the league had asked team staff members to refrain commenting on the incident.
May 4, 2021: The NWSL announced that, following its investigation into Gorden’s claims, no action would be taken against the Houston Dash. “Following multiple interviews with witnesses and a review of the venue security footage, the investigation was closed,” the league said in a statement.
The lack of transparency in the league’s announcement fueled further outrage from NWSL fans, As reporter Steph Yang pointed out in this All for XI story, the league has a history of failing to investigate racist incidents.
“This is another brick in the wall of noncommunication from NWSL,” Yang wrote. “Allowances must be made for confidentiality and sensitivity, certainly. But when fans immediately and consistently react with outright skepticism to league statements, that’s a signal that NWSL has a communication problem. When it comes to issues of racism, harassment, player protection, and safety protocols, ambiguity is nobody’s friend.”
Farid Benstiti resigns from OL Reign
July 2, 2021: OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti resigned.
“We are appreciative of Farid’s many contributions to the club over the past 18 months and wish him the best in all his future endeavors,” OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said in a statement released by the club. “We have great respect for Farid’s talents and all he brought to the organization, but in our recent conversations there was a collective agreement that new leadership was required to achieve the performances and results needed to satisfy our ambitions.”
Three months later, the Washington Post would report new details surrounding Benstiti’s departure (see below).
NJ/NY Gotham FC terminates Alyse LaHue
July 16, 2021: NJ/NY Gotham FC announced that it had fired general manager Alyse LaHue on July 9th. According to the team’s statement, the decision was made “based on the results of a league investigation into a complaint of violation of league policy.”
A report published by the Athletic said the investigation was related to the league’s new anti-harassment policy. “Following a complaint, the league conducted an investigation and shared the findings of that investigation with Gotham FC,” an NWSL spokesperson told the Athletic. “Those findings will remain confidential and the league will not comment further on individual club personnel matters.”
LaHue has denied the allegations.
Washington Spirit’s Richie Burke steps down due to “health concerns”
August 10, 2021: The Washington Spirit announced that Richie Burke was stepping down from his head coaching duties and would been reassigned to the Spirit front office.
“Yesterday Richie advised me of some health concerns and we mutually agreed that it was in the best interests of him and of the club for him to step down as our coach. Once Richie’s health improves, he will join the sporting operations front office staff,” Larry Best, the Spirit’s President of Sporting Operations, said in a statement. (While this statement has since been deleted from the Spirit’s website, it can still be viewed here.)
August 11, 2021: One day Burke was allowed to step down, Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post published a story in which former Spirit player Kaiya McCullough alleged that Burke’s racist language and verbal and emotional abuse caused her to leave the team. According to the Washington Post‘s report, McCullough was one of at least four players to leave the Spirit in the last two years due to Burke’s treatment.
“I was 100 percent in a situation where I was being emotionally abused by Richie,” McCullough told the Washington Post. “He created this environment where I knew I wasn’t playing as well because I was so, so scared to mess up and be yelled at. It crippled my performance, and it made me super anxious. He made me hate soccer.”
After Hensley-Clancy’s report was published, the Spirit suspended Burke, pending an investigation.
Mid-August: The Washington Spirit announced multiple decisions – from signing IntelliBridge as a jersey sponsor to hiring UNC women’s soccer head coach Anson Dorrance as a new advisor – that resulted in fan outrage. A more in-depth timeline of the Spirit’s history – compiled by the Athletic – can be found here.
August 30, 2021: In a story for the Washington Post, Molly Hensley-Clancy and Steven Goff reported on an ongoing power struggle between the Washington Spirit co-owners Steve Baldwin and Y. Michele Kang.
Christy Holly terminated “for cause”
August 31, 2021: Racing Louisville FC – an expansion team that began playing in the NWSL in 2021 – announced that head coach Christy Holly‘s contract had been terminated “for cause.”
Washington Spirit power struggle ramps up, Richie Burke fired
September 2, 2021: The Washington Spirit hired Ben Olsen – a former D.C. United Player with no prior experience in women’s soccer – to serve as president of team operations. The Spirit press release included comments from co-owners Steve Baldwin, Bill Lynch, and investor Devin Talbott, but – notably – not Y. Michele Kang.
September 4, 2021: The Washington Spirit’s game against the Portland Thorns was postponed due to multiple COVID-19 cases within the Spirit.
A D.C. sports radio host Chris Russell, who doesn’t typically report on the NWSL but had hosted Baldwin on his podcast earlier in the year, posted on Twitter that Kang was under investigation due to allegations related to the league’s new anti-harassment policy. Russell also tweeted that Kang – who is Asian American – had held a “dumpling making party” that had led to the COVID outbreak on the team. This portrayal was called out as racist and later debunked by the Equalizer, which reported that the team’s outbreak began after one of the team’s many unvaccinated players travelled out of market and then failed to properly isolate upon her return.
Also on September 4: Meg Linehan of the Athletic reported that Larry Best filed an anti-harassment complaint concerning Spirit co-owner Michele Kang.
September 22, 2021: Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post reported that the NWSL’s investigation into the Washington Spirit had “widened to include allegations of a toxic work culture for female employees.” According to the Hensley-Clancy’s story, the culture was especially toxic for women of color.
September 28, 2021: Former Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke – who had previously been allowed to step down due to “health concerns” – was fired following an investigation that the NWSL commissioned.
“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.”
While full details of the investigation were not made public, Hensley-Clancy reported that “Baldwin, Burke and president of sporting operations Larry Best had created a culture in the club that prevented multiple players and employees from speaking up.”
The Post‘s report continued: “Investigators also heard allegations that Baldwin hired unqualified friends for jobs at the club and that multiple male employees made misogynistic comments in the presence of female colleagues, those people said. Multiple people also raised concerns to investigators that Baldwin had “rage traded” multiple Spirit players whom he perceived to have defied him or been disloyal, two people briefed on the investigation said.”
Paul Riley accused of sexual coercion and emotional abuse
September 30, 2021: The Athletic‘s Meg Linehan published a report in which former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim accused North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley of sexual coercion and emotional abuse.
Riley – who denied the allegations to the Athletic – was fired hours later.
The Athletic’s report detailed how Shim filed a complaint with the Portland Thorns (where Riley was then head coach) in September 2015, which was a factor in Riley’s contract not being renewed. That said, when Riley was let go, the Thorns issued a statement thanking him for “his services to the club.”
According to the Athletic, the Thorns’ investigation into Riley’s behavior was shared with the NWSL, but Riley was hired by a new team – the now-defunct Western New York Flash – five months later. The North Carolina Courage was founded in 2017 after the owner acquired the Flash’s rights, and Riley moved to North Carolina to lead the team.
After the NWSL introduced its first anti-harassment policy earlier this year, Farrelly and Shim contacted the NWSL to request a new investigation into Riley’s behavior. Both players were told by NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird that the 2015 complaint was “investigated to conclusion.”
After Baird issued a statement in which she said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the allegations, USWNT star and Orlando Pride player Alex Morgan posted screenshots of the April 2021 email exchange in which Farrelly reported “extremely inappropriate conduct by Mr. Riley” in a letter to Baird.
Also on September 30: In response to the allegations against Riley, the NWSL Players Association (NWSLPA) issued a statement, calling on the NWSL to take action and listing three specific demands. “The NWSL has failed us. We are taking our power back,” the statement read.
Individual players also called for change. “Men, protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN. Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll,” Megan Rapinoe wrote on Twitter.
October 1, 2021: The NWSL – following calls from the Players Association – announced that the games scheduled for October 2 and 3 had been postponed.
Also on October 1: FIFA and U.S. Soccer announced that they were opening investigations into the allegations against Riley.
By the end of the day, Lisa Baird had resigned as NWSL commissioner.
New details emerge about Benstiti’s departure
October 2, 2021: Molly Hensley-Clancy of the Washington Post reported new details surrounding the departure of former OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti, who had resigned from his role in early July.
According to Hensley-Clancy, “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.”
Hensley-Clancy also reported that OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore – who had publicly praised Benstiti’s contributions to the club in early July – had requested Benstiti’s resignation after being told of the inappropriate comments. “Predmore said the team investigated that allegation and requested Benstiti’s resignation, and he said he found out about the formal complaint to the NWSL only after doing so,” Hensley-Clancy wrote.
Back in March, USWNT member and current Portland Thorns player Lindsey Horan discussed her time under Benstiti at Paris Saint-Germain in an appearance on Butterfly Road, a podcast hosted by North Carolina Courage player Cari Roccaro. In the episode, Horan detailed how the team’s coaching staff created an unhealthy environment that shamed players for how much they weighed and forced athletes onto diets.
According to Hensley-Clancy, the OL Reign had “instituted a zero-tolerance policy” with Bensistiti after learning of Horan’s allegations.
NWSL announces new executive committee
October 3, 2021: The NWSL announced the formation of a three-woman executive committee to oversee the league’s front office operations. The committee includes Amanda Duffy (Orlando Pride), Angie Long (Kansas City), and Sophie Sauvage (OL Reign).
Washington Spirit players call out owner Steve Baldwin
October 5, 2021: In a statement posted on the Washington Spirit’s Twitter account, Steve Baldwin said he was resigning as CEO and managing partner, and handing “full authority over all club operations” to Ben Olsen. However, Baldwin’s statement did not indicate whether he would be selling his stake of the club.
Later on October 5: Players on the Washington Spirit respond to Baldwin’s statement, requesting that he sell his stake to co-owner Y. Michele Kang.
“When we asked you to step aside, step back from management, we clearly meant you should not retain any management control,” the players’ statement read. “We are sure you understood that.”
The statement continued: “Let us be clear. The person we trust is Michele. She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens. She believes that this can be a profitable business and you have always said you intended to hand the team over to female ownership. That moment is now.”
The Spirit players’ statement also called out Baldwin’s decision to leave Olsen in charge given that Olsen “has virtually no experience in the role you left to him.”
NWSL players continue calls for change, systemic reform
October 6, 2021: The NWSL returns to competition. Six minutes into each of the night’s three games, players paused and gathered at the center of each field. The NWSL Players Association released a statement saying that the moment of solidarity was “in honor of the 6 years it took for Mana, Sinead, and all those who fought for too long to be heard.”
As part of the statement, the NWSLPA listed eight demands, including calling on every NWSL coach, general manager, board of governors representative, and owner to “voluntarily submit to the Players Association’s independent investigation into abusive conduct.”
Also on October 6: Players on the Portland Thorns issued a joint statement on social media demanding that the team’s general manager, Gavin Wilkinson, be placed on administrative leave until an investigation concludes.
Within an hour, the Portland Thorns issued a statement that Wilkinson was on administrative leave “from Thorns duties” but left the door open for Wilkinson to continue working with the Timbers.
October 8, 2021: Former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough published an opinion piece for the Washington Post in which she further details her experience with the league’s “toxic culture.”
“The men who made up so much of team leadership used fear and bullying to maintain control of the club. Racist and degrading nicknames emanated from the front office. My coach emotionally abused me,” McCullough wrote.
She continued: “I have been playing soccer for 18 years, and I have never experienced a demand for total upheaval like this one. It’s an overwhelmingly positive thing, but it took trauma and suffering to get here. Only real, far-reaching change dictated by players themselves can honor that.”
2021 NWSL championship game relocated
October 13, 2021: The NWSL and NWSLPA – in a joint statement – announced that the 2021 NWSL championship game scheduled for November 20, 2021, will be moved from Portland to Louisville.
When Portland was announced as host earlier this year, players drew issue with the early 9am start time (the result of a TV window on CBS).
“Portland understood the importance of listening to the players, and Louisville stepped up to host. Players embraced the opportunity to kickoff at noon local time in a fantastic venue,” the joint statement read.
The statement also said the league and Players Association had “worked to come to an agreement on several of the demands set forth by the PA last week.” The two parties agreed to a five-day extension to reach an outcome on the remaining items.
This story will continue to be updated.
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