National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird resigned after about 19 months on the job amid allegations that a former coach engaged in sexual harassment and misconduct.
Baird’s resignation was announced by the league on Friday night, the day after Athletic published the accounts of two former players who alleged misconduct, including sexual coercion, by North Carolina coach Paul Riley.
Riley was fired by the Courage on Thursday and the accusations sparked a wave of condemnation from players that forced a suspension of games this weekend.
In addition, FIFA opened an investigation into the case on Friday. It is rare for the international governing body of soccer to become involved in a controversy involving a member association. US Soccer also announced an independent investigation on Friday.
US Soccer was instrumental in founding the NWSL in 2013 and helped support the league until last year, when it became independent. The federation continues its financial support for the league.
“The safety and respect of the players is the primary responsibility of everyone involved in this game. That’s true of all ages, competitions and skill levels, “US Soccer President Cindy Cone said in a statement. “We owe it to every athlete, every fan, and the entire soccer community to take every meaningful action in our power to ensure that nothing like this happens again.”
US Soccer suspended Riley’s coaching license on Thursday after Athletic published allegations of abuse by former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim.
FIFA told the Associated Press it was “deeply concerned” by the case and will now seek further details from US soccer authorities on the issues raised.
“Due to the gravity and seriousness of the players’ allegations, we can confirm that FIFA’s judicial bodies are actively investigating the matter and have opened a preliminary investigation,” FIFA said in a statement to the AP. “As part of this, FIFA will contact the respective parties, including US Soccer and NWSL, to learn more about the various safeguarding concerns and allegations of abuse that have been raised.”
The alleged harassment of Farrelly began in 2011 when she was a player for the Philadelphia Independence of the now-defunct women’s professional soccer league.
She told the website that the harassment continued when Farrelly was with the Portland Thorns. Shim, a former Thorns player, allegedly suffered harassment as well. The Thorns said Thursday the team investigated the claims about Riley and passed them on to the league when he was fired.
Riley told Athletic that the allegations were “completely false.”
Outrage over the allegations rocked the league and forced it to suspend games this weekend. The NWSL Players Association said it hoped fans understood and supported the decision.
“It’s okay to take the space to process, feel and care for yourself,” the union said. “In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s a priority. That, as players, will be our focus this weekend. “
Baird became commissioner of the NWSL in February 2020, after serving as director of marketing for the United States Olympic Committee. She was praised for bringing new sponsors to the NWSL and increasing the league’s visibility on the national stage.
OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, who has been playing in the NWSL since its inception in 2013, suggested the league and women’s sports in general are in the midst of a reckoning.
“I think female athletes specifically have been through a lot over the years, not just women’s soccer,” Fishlock said. “I think everyone knows what has happened with USA Gymnastics and this is something that has been happening in women’s sports over and over again for years and years and years. And we’ve never felt safe enough to talk about it, and if we ever felt brave enough to talk about it, then it would just be swept under the rug, or we were told we were wrong … and I think we are now at a point where we have just finished. “
Several prominent USWNT stars called for action shortly after the news broke on Thursday.
“NWSL, it’s time to fix your things,” said Becky Sauerbrunn, the captain of the US women’s national team. in a statement on Twitter. “Being where we are today is unacceptable. The league and all the clubs have to do better ”.
Added Megan Rapinoe wrote on Twitter: “Men, protecting men, who abuse women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN. Burn it all Let all their heads roll. “
Riley was the head coach of the Thorns in 2014 and 2015. After the Thorns fired him, he became the head coach of the Western New York Flash for a season before the team was sold and moved to North Carolina.
In its ninth season, the NWSL has been rocked by a series of recent scandals involving team officials.
Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired after a Washington Post report detailed verbal and emotional abuse of players. The league formally fired Burke and sanctioned Spirit Tuesday after an independent investigation.
Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired in July following an investigation related to the league’s anti-bullying policy. She has denied wrongdoing.
Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired in September, but the reasons for his firing were not made public.
OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti abruptly resigned in July. On Friday, OL Reign CEO and minority owner Bill Predmore said Benstiti was asked to resign after an undisclosed incident during practice.
Benstiti had previously been accused by US national team midfielder Lindsay Horan of sexist behavior during his time as Paris Saint-Germain coach. Horan has said that Benstiti berated her for her weight.