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NWSL players speak out amid abuse claims: ‘Burn it all down’

Anna Heilferty of the Washington Spirit, one of the NWSL clubs rocked by allegations of abuse and a toxic workplace. (Scott Taetsch/For The Washington Post)
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For years, they did not speak about what they endured, at least not publicly. They were afraid of losing their spots on the field, losing their jobs, maybe losing the entire league — one that they were told, again and again, was the best women’s soccer league in the world.

But this year, the players of the National Women’s Soccer League started to speak up in a summer of reckoning that led Thursday to high-profile players and other prominent figures calling for dramatic change.

The players’ union demanded an end to “systemic abuse plaguing the NWSL” in the wake of reporting from the Athletic that an NWSL coach, the North Carolina Courage’s Paul Riley, had sexually coerced multiple players, as well as reporting by The Washington Post about verbal and emotional abuse by the former coach of the Washington Spirit. (Riley denied the allegations to the Athletic.) On Friday, the NWSL announced it would not play matches scheduled for this weekend. “I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling,” Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement announcing the decision.

At the Spirit and Courage, former NWSL players did something they had never done before: They went on the record to detail the abuse they said they had experienced. And on Thursday, a long list of NWSL players, including stars Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, offered angry criticism of a league they said had failed to protect players.

“Men, protecting men, who are abusing women,” Rapinoe wrote on Twitter of the NWSL. “... Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll.”

“NWSL, it’s time to get your s--- together,” Becky Sauerbrunn, the captain of the U.S. national team, said in a statement on Twitter. “... To be where we are today is unacceptable. The league and every club have to do better.”

The Athletic reported that the league, including Baird, had been told repeatedly about some aspects of Riley’s behavior and had not taken action, allowing him to remain in his position. On Thursday, Morgan posted images to Twitter that showed one of the victims, Sinead Farrelly, reporting she had been a victim of “inappropriate conduct” by Riley to Baird in April. Riley was terminated following the Athletic’s story.

In a statement, Baird said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the story and that the league planned to report what it said were “new allegations” to the U.S. Center for SafeSport for investigation. But she did not address what she and the league had previously known about Riley. The NWSL did not respond to a request seeking an interview with Baird.

The NWSL has enjoyed growth and increased exposure in recent years alongside the rise in popularity of the U.S. women’s national team. Last year, for the first time, some of its games aired on broadcast television, and an influx of high-profile investors including Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, and Chelsea Clinton has bought into the league’s potential for growth.

But the uproar over player abuse has shined an uncomfortable light on the culture and labor practices of the 10-year-old league, which has mostly been dominated in its coaching and ownership ranks by men. At the beginning of the 2021 season, the league had just one female coach, and most of the league’s majority owners and lead investors are men.

Beyond its leadership ranks, which are finally diversifying, the league exerts extraordinary control over players’ rights, a fact that some in the league warn is exacerbating abuse by making it more difficult for players to speak up. The league places severe restrictions on players’ rights while paying salaries that mostly fall below $30,000 per year. Until this year, it had few mechanisms in place to report abuse.

Riley is the third NWSL coach to be fired from the league for misconduct this year. Richie Burke, the former Spirit coach accused of verbal abuse, was fired from the club earlier this week, after an NWSL investigation found he had violated league policies. Christy Holly, the male former coach of Racing Louisville, was fired with cause in September.

A fourth coach, Farid Benstiti of OL Reign in Tacoma, Wash., resigned in July. When Benstiti’s departure was announced, OL Reign’s CEO, Bill Predmore, thanked Benstiti for his “contributions” to the team and said the club “wished him the best in all his future endeavors.”

Buckner: In 2021, women’s sports still provide more outrage than empowerment

But 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. Benstiti could not be reached for comment.

In a statement to The Post, OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said he had requested Benstiti’s resignation after he was told of the inappropriate comments by a player. 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.

But Benstiti’s pattern of behavior was known publicly before he was hired by the Reign last year. A U.S. national team player, Lindsey Horan, had spoken about her experiences being shamed for her weight by Benstiti when she played for him at French club Paris Saint-Germain.

Predmore said the team was not aware of “any specific issues or concerns” with Benstiti when he was hired. He said once the team learned of Horan’s allegations — she spoke about them in detail on a podcast earlier this year — the team had instituted a “zero-tolerance” policy with Benstiti.

All four coaches had faced previous allegations of improprieties with players, some of them public. And like after Benstiti’s departure, NWSL teams put out statements following Burke and Riley leaving their jobs that did not indicate any allegations of misconduct.

The Thorns said Thursday that the club “chose to sever ties with Riley” in 2015 after the team found “clear violations of our company policies.” But at the time, the Thorns general manager thanked Riley for his time at the club and said only that his contract would not be renewed. In August, the Spirit announced Burke would be stepping down from his coaching position “for health reasons,” but would remain in the team’s front office. The Post published a story detailing allegations of verbal abuse against Burke the next day.

The question of what has gone wrong in a league that has tried to position itself as a pinnacle of female empowerment has many answers. The lack of representation of women and people of color on teams and in the league has become a major focus for some clubs, which have worked to hire female coaches and general managers and bring on more women owners.

In some cases, however, those efforts have been mostly symbolic. After the Spirit brought on a female co-owner, Michele Kang, last year, she raised concerns about the treatment of women within the organization that she said went unaddressed. The Post reported that Kang has since been sidelined by the team’s controlling owner, Steve Baldwin, with the team in the midst of turmoil.

And the NWSL’s problems go beyond representation. The Athletic reported that players allegedly abused by Riley had written to Baird asking for her to renew an investigation into Riley’s behavior after the league created a new anti-harassment policy earlier this year. Baird declined, the Athletic reported, saying the matter had been “investigated to conclusion” when it was first reported in 2015.

And a female general manager, Alyse LaHue, was dismissed for violations of the league’s anti-harassment policy earlier this year. (LaHue denied the allegations against her, the details of which were not made public.)

The NWSL had no comprehensive anti-harassment policy in place and accessible to players until earlier this year, and some teams are only just beginning to create human resources offices. Spirit players allegedly abused by Burke told The Post they felt they had nowhere to turn and that they feared for their jobs if they spoke up.

“These issues are not new this year,” said Yael Averbuch West, the interim general manager of Gotham FC and a former player. “This quite frankly has to do with a lack of systems and policies. I know for myself, I’ve played on many teams where there’s no HR department, no way to report things. This is indicative of a larger issue having to do with player and staff safety.”

For Eniola Aluko, a former English national team player who is now the sporting director of Angel City FC, a new NWSL franchise in Los Angeles that will begin play next year, the problems with player abuse in the NWSL stem from a “culture of control” that does not prioritize players and their rights.

“It’s the most archaic thing I’ve ever seen,” Aluko said of the NWSL’s system. “It’s not fair; it’s not right for women to be held at ransom.”

Aluko pointed to the fact that the NWSL offers no form of free agency, and teams continue to control players’ economic rights even after contracts expire or players move to different leagues. Meanwhile, most players make salaries that often require them to work second jobs.

“If the culture is always ‘Let’s protect ownership’ and not ‘Let’s protect the players,’ the players will always feel in a weak position,” Aluko said. “You have a culture of control, which means that players don’t have autonomy over their own careers.”

The NWSL players’ association is in the midst of negotiations for its first contract and has made economic rights and issues like free agency an important piece of its demands. On Thursday, it made new demands of the NWSL, including that the league suspend any officials who knew of abusive behavior but did not report it.

“The NWSL has failed us,” the union said in a statement. “We are taking our power back.”

This story has been updated to include the news that the NWSL has called off its weekend games.

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