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Navigating a minefield

The National Women’s Soccer League faces a reckoning of abuse and harassment

In an Oct. 13 game in Portland, Ore., players from the Portland Thorns FC and Tacoma’s OL Reign link arms in solidarity against player abuse. John Rudoff/Sipa via AP

Navigating a minefield

A recent wave of scandals has rocked the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), a league that has positioned itself as a beacon of female athletic empowerment.

It follows several other high-profile examples of sexual assault in the sports world: The NFL’s Washington Football Team and the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, for instance, have come under fire in recent years for allowing rampant sexual harassment—if not coercion—of female employees. The NCAA sanctioned Baylor University’s football program earlier this year after the Texas-based school repeatedly ignored allegations of sexual assault against football players at the height of the program’s success in the early 2010s. And, of course, there’s the USA Gymnastics scandal, in which hundreds of young women suffered sexual abuse.

The NWSL was created in 2012 as a showcase for America’s top women’s soccer players. The past half year saw allegations of inappropriate behavior that has led to the male coaches and executives from four teams—and the league’s female commissioner—being fired, being placed on administrative leave, or resigning in disgrace as the regular season wound down.

The dominoes began falling in late July, when Farid Bensiti, the coach of Seattle’s OL Reign, abruptly resigned. While it is unclear whether Bensiti made comments of a sexual nature, The Seattle Times reported that he made inappropriate body-shaming comments.

Then in late September, the North Carolina Courage fired coach Paul Riley in response to allegations published by The Athletic. Based on interviews with two players whom Riley coached when he was with the Portland Thorns, the article alleged that Riley coerced the players to kiss one another while he watched in 2015. One of the players said he coerced her to have sex with him multiple times beginning in 2011. (Riley denies the allegations.)

In the wake of Riley’s firing, the Thorns placed general manager Gavin Wilkinson on administrative leave as it investigates his handling of players’ complaints against Riley during his tenure in Portland.

Around the time of Riley’s firing, the Washington Spirit fired its coach, Richie Burke, after the NWSL found him guilty of verbal and emotional abuse. The team’s CEO and managing partner, Steve Baldwin, resigned soon thereafter. The Washington Post reported that Burke and Baldwin created such a toxic environment that Spirit players were leaving mid­season.

The string of scandals was enough to lead the NWSL to temporarily suspend operations during the first weekend of October to give players a chance to grieve. It also led league commissioner Lisa Baird to resign that same weekend: Baird acknowledged a league-wide culture of mistreatment that did not start on her watch, which began in 2017, but which she admittedly did little to address.

In the first matches held after the NWSL resumed play in early October, teams met at midfield during the sixth minute to link arms in solidarity. Teams in England and Northern Ireland pledged to do likewise to show support for their NWSL counterparts.

Since then, the NWSL Players’ Association has issued a list of demands aimed at providing protection for the women who play in the league, starting with allowing the players’ union to investigate each of the league’s 12 teams’ coaches, executives, and owners for abusive conduct. Presumably, this is because team and league officials have consistently demonstrated both a lack of transparency in the name of protecting their brands and an unwillingness to take action in response to players’ complaints.

Should NWSL players succeed in shifting the balance of power that allows women in their position to be abused, it could create a model of change that causes a ripple effect throughout women’s sports.

Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.



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