NWSL postpones weekend games as abuse scandal fallout continues

·4 min read

The NWSL has called off its slate of games for this weekend in the wake of a sexual coercion scandal revealed Thursday by The Athletic.

“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," former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement. The Athletic reported Friday night Baird and league counsel Lisa Levine had been ousted from their roles.

"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.”

Paul Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage after reports detailed patterns of sexual misconduct, harassment and coercion. The NWSL Players Association demanded a league investigation, which the NWSL announced has been turned over to the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

On Friday afternoon, SafeSport issued a temporary suspension for Riley, citing allegations of misconduct.

According to SafeSport, individuals who are temporarily suspended are barred from "participating, in any capacity, in any program, activity, event or competition sponsored by, organized by, or under the auspices of" U.S. Soccer, or at any facility under the governing body's jurisdiction.

"A Temporary Suspension is only implemented in matters where the Center has sufficient evidentiary support," according to SafeSport.

An NWSL game ball before a match between Kansas City and Washington.
An NWSL game ball before a match between Kansas City and Washington.

The players' union said it asked the league to postpone this weekend's games Thursday night and that Baird, along with the Board of Governors, worked overnight to grant the request.

"Yesterday was a profoundly painful day for us, as players, and so many," a statement from the union read. "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."

Two games were scheduled for Friday and another three Saturday. The league did not offer a specific date for a return to play; the next dates on the schedule are Oct. 6 and Oct. 9.

"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," the union statement read. "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."

Former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim went on record with The Athletic detailing the trauma they experienced while playing under Riley on NWSL clubs including Western New York and the Portland Thorns.

Alex Morgan tweeted screenshots of emails between Shim and Baird from March of this year, more than six months before the allegations became public. Riley had won back-to-back NWSL titles with the Courage (2018, 2019) and had been there since 2017. Emails between Farrelly and the comissioner from this spring also became public, with Baird touting an Anti-Harassment Policy announced April 13.

Players expressed outrage throughout Thursday. Megan Rapinoe called for resignations. Becky Sauerbrunn wrote in a message "NWSL, it's time to get your (expletive) together." Nadia Nadim said the league "is such a joke."

FIFA has opened an investigation into the accusations against Riley, according to The Associated Press. U.S. Soccer also announced it would be launching an investigation into the allegations in a statement.

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NWSL games canceled as abuse scandal grips soccer league