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NWSL commissioner, under pressure from players, resigns after abuse claims

Lisa Baird, the commissioner of the National Women's Soccer League, resigned Friday night. (Lee Jin-man/AP)
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The commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League resigned Friday night, hours after the league called off all of this weekend’s games, as the NWSL grapples with multiple reports of alleged abuse of players and claims that the league had failed to address allegations of sexual coercion by a male coach.

In a statement, the league said it had “received and accepted Lisa Baird’s resignation as its commissioner.”

Baird’s resignation follows the firing of two NWSL coaches in the space of a week after both faced abuse allegations. Former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired Tuesday following a league investigation into allegations of verbal and emotional abuse that were first reported in The Washington Post.

And on Thursday, North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired following a harrowing account of multiple allegations of sexual coercion published in the Athletic. Baird had been told of some of the allegations against Riley early this year, the Athletic reported, but declined a request from a player Riley allegedly abused to investigate him. (Riley denied the allegations to the Athletic.)

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

The revelations of alleged abuse, and of the league’s failures, prompted an outcry of anger from NWSL players and other prominent figures, with the player’s association calling for an end to “systematic abuse in the NWSL.”

The NWSL players called on the league to not hold the games, they said in a statement, to give them time to cope with the revelations. “This was not an easy decision, as there is nothing we love more than playing for our fans,” the players’ union said in a statement Friday. “... We also recognize, however, that mental health struggles are real.” The union said the NWSL had “worked overnight” to postpone the games.

“I feel like the league has to have a complete rebuild,” Alex Morgan, star of the U.S. national team and a player for the Orlando Pride, said in an interview Friday. “I think they need to listen to their players, admit fault, apologize and be truthful and transparent for the first time.”

The 10-year-old NWSL has seen significant gains in popularity and investment in recent years, promoting a narrative of empowering and elevating female athletes. But its top ranks — among coaches, general managers and owners — have long been dominated by men, and players have criticized the league’s low pay and lack of rights such as free agency. It had few systems in place before this year for players to report abuse, and players said they feared for their jobs — and for the league’s future — if they spoke up against powerful coaches and owners.

Morgan was deeply critical of the league and of Baird for their failures to prevent abuse, especially in Riley’s case. A former NWSL player, Sinead Farrelly, alleged Riley had coerced her into having sex multiple times while he was her coach and that he had compelled her and another player to kiss in front of him.

The Athletic reported that Riley had been dismissed from a previous team, the Portland Thorns, in 2015 after misconduct allegations, only to be hired by another NWSL club within months. At the time, the Thorns thanked Riley “for his services to the club.”

On Friday, FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation announced they were opening investigations into Riley’s abuse. U.S. Soccer managed the NWSL at the time of the original allegations against Riley.

In total, four NWSL teams have seen their male coaches leave after allegations of misconduct this summer. One coach, OL Reign’s Farid Benstiti, was asked to resign following allegations that he had spoken abusively to players, The Post reported, though at the time, OL Reign’s CEO, Bill Predmore, said only that he had resigned and thanked him for his contributions.

All four coaches had faced previous allegations of misconduct, some of them public. Burke had been accused of verbally abusing youth players and calling them homophobic slurs when he was hired by the Spirit in 2019. And a prominent U.S. national team player, Lindsey Horan, had spoken of how Benstiti body-shamed her repeatedly when she played for him at the club Paris Saint-Germain.

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

“Men, protecting men, who are abusing women,” OL Reign star Megan Rapinoe said Thursday on Twitter. “... Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll.”

Morgan said she wanted to see accountability and widespread change in the league, emphasizing the importance of continuing investigations into people who had known of abuse and “brushed it under the rug.” The players’ union has called for the suspension of those in power within teams and the league who allegedly knew of abuse and did not report it.

“We’re not in the sunlight yet,” Morgan said. “We’re not even close to being there. But the optimistic person inside of me says we can get there.”

Steven Goff contributed to this report, which has been updated with Baird’s resignation.

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