by Paul Kennedy
The allegations against former NWSL coach Paul Riley dated back a decade to before the women's league was formed.
Lisa Baird was not yet the league's commissioner when Riley hired for jobs at the Western New York Flash and North Carolina Courage following his departure the Portland Thorns, who chose not to renew his contract for what they termed on Thursday were "clear violations of our company policies" after an investigation into Mana Shim's complaint about Riley's behavior.
But Baird was the first executive to take the fall in the aftermath of Thursday's revelations by The Athletic, which published accusations by two of former players, Sinead Farrelly and Shim, that Riley had engaged in sexual harassment and misconduct.
Late on Friday night, the NWSL issued a one-sentence statement:
"The National Women’s Soccer League on Friday has received and accepted Lisa Baird’s resignation as its commissioner."
The Athletic first reported that Baird, who was hired in March 2020 right before the pandemic shut down the league, and general counsel Lisa Levine were ousted by the NWSL's board of directors. USA Today confirmed Baird's ouster.
After publication of The Athletic story on Riley, Baird issued a statement that she was "shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations," which included sexual coercion, and Riley had been terminated. (Riley has denied the accusations.)
But within hours, U.S. national team star Alex Morgan, who had played with Farrelly and Shim on the Thorns and helped Shim get her complaint against Riley investigated by the Thorns, published an email exchange between Farrelly and Baird.
Following the NWSL's issuance of a new anti-harassment policy in April, Farrelly and Shim wrote Baird to request that she open an investigation into Riley, who was still coaching in the league. Baird responded that she checked her files and "the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion."
Baird's statement that she was "shocked and disgusted" to read allegations she chose not to investigate was the last straw.
"The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations," Morgan said. "The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse."
The New York Times reported that on Thursday night enraged players participated in a video-conference call that was arranged by the NWSLPA and lasted until almost midnight and they shared their own stories and discussed what would be the next steps to take.
On Friday, the NWSL called off all five games scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff," Baird said in a statement announcing the postponements, "and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling."
Why Baird chose not to take Farrelly and Shim up on their request to interview them about Riley is one of the many questions that need to be answered in regard to what Farrelly termed "institutional betrayal."
What were the results of the 2015 investigation into Shim's claims against Riley? What had the Thorns done about Farrelly's claims? What did other clubs know about the results of the investigation? Why was he allowed to continue coaching in the league?
In the last three months, four coaches have been terminated or resigned under pressure. Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was terminated for violation of the league's anti-harassment policy.
Why has a pattern of abuse become so widespread? What have club or league officials known about the behavior or past behavior? What can been done to allow those who have been abused to feel they can come forward with their complaints and be protected? What new safeguards can be introduced to prevent these abuses in the future? And how will players ever trust the league's current owners?
On Friday afternoon, U.S. Soccer announced it will launch an independent investigation into The Athletic's allegations. It acknowledged it played a major role in establishing the NWSL in 2013, provided administrative support to the league until 2020 and continues to financially support the NWSL in which most of its national team players compete. U.S. Soccer said it will share the results of the investigation when it concludes.
FIFA took the unusual step of telling the AP the allegations were so severe and serious that its judicial bodies have also opened a preliminary investigation.