Head of US women’s soccer league resigns over how she handled complaints

The head of the US women’s soccer league has resigned over how she handled complaints from players about alleged coach abuse.

The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) announced late on Friday that commissioner Lisa Baird had resigned from her post after it emerged that she rejected a player’s attempt to raise issues relating to the behaviour of a coach.

Former NWSL player Sinead Farrelly wrote in an email to Ms Baird on 28 April that she had “experienced firsthand extremely inappropriate conduct” by Paul Riley, coach of the North Carolina Courage, and said that concerns she had first raised in 2015 had not been properly investigated.

Ms Baird replied in an email that the league took safety seriously but that “the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion”.

The Athletic reported on Thursday that Mr Riley allegedly pressured a player into having sex with him, forced two other players to kiss each other and subsequently sent them sexual images.

There are also allegations that he yelled at players, and belittled them, and that team policy violations from his time with the Portland Thorns in 2015 were never made public.

Mr Riley, who has been fired from his role, told The Athletic in an email that most of the allegations against him are “completely untrue”.

“I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players,” he said.

“There’s a chance I’ve said something along the way that offended someone,” he added, but noted that: “I do not belittle my players”.

After The Athletic story was published on Thursday morning, Ms Baird released a statement.

“I was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic this morning,” it read. “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.”

She added that the league was “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”.

However later in the day Alex Morgan, a US national team star, posted on Twitter the earlier emails written by Ms Baird.

“The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse,” Ms Morgan wrote.

On Friday Ms Baird announced that this weekend’s games would be cancelled.

“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff,” she stated. “I take full responsibility for the role I have played.” She left her role hours later.

The union for athletes in the NWSL pushed the league to cancel games this weekend amid the fallout.

Along with Mr Riley, Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke stepped down on 11 August after a player accused him of threats and personal insults.

The league said on Tuesday Mr Burke was also banned from further NWSL employment. The Washington Post reported that Mr Burke would “unleash a torrent of threats, criticism and personal insults” towards players.

Washington Spirit cited “health concerns” as to why Mr Burke was stepping down. He has not spoken publicly about the allegations.

Players are demanding that the league work harder to protect players from abusive behaviour.

“The thing that is so hard for these women is they are fighting tooth and nail just to make a living, and a lot of these clubs are not funded in the way men’s organizations are funded,” said Tonya Antonucci, who led the organisation Women’s Professional Soccer, which predated the NWSL.

“You don’t have the robust HR departments and systems and accountability, but it should be there,” she told The New York Times.

In August, coach Christy Holly was fired for cause from Kentucky team, Racing Louisville amid reports about a “toxic environment”. The club said in a statement that he had been fired “for cause”.

Farid Benstiti left Seattle-based side, OL Reign, in July following allegations of improper comments, the team’s chief executive said on Friday.

OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore told The Seattle Times: In any business where somebody is either fired or they’re asked to leave their job, those circumstances are not always disclosed. Part of the reason for that is, sometimes, to affect that change as quickly as possible, it requires compromise on how things are messaged. That’s what happened in this case.”

A staggering 40 per cent of head coaches of league teams have resigned in the last three months.

The Independent has reached out to the NWSL for comment.

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