The commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League has resigned and the league has called off all matches scheduled for this weekend following a report by The Athletic detailing allegations of sexual coercion and misconduct against Paul Riley, who coached three NWSL franchises over eight seasons.
Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage on Thursday after an investigative report by The Athletic that cites players on the record alleging that for years, Riley used his influence and power to sexually harass players and in one incident, coerce a player into having sex with him.
Riley denied the accusations in the report. CNN has not been able to reach Riley for comment.
The league released one sentence about Commissioner Lisa Baird, saying she resigned and the league accepted.
Earlier, the NWSL said the league’s decision not to play this weekend’s matches was reached in collaboration with the players union and was based on “the gravity of the events of the last week.”
A statement from the players’ union said it was a difficult decision to ask for the matches to be called off. The union recognized that fans made travel plans and spent money to go to the matches. It also recognized that playing is what gives the players joy.
“We refuse to let that joy be taken from us. We also recognize, however, that mental health struggles are real,” the statement said. The priority this weekend will be for players to take care of themselves, the statement said.
Baird had apologized for the fallout: “This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played.
“I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now.
“Our entire league has a great deal of healing to do, and our players deserve so much better. We have made this decision in collaboration with our players’ association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue.”
Two-time World Cup champion Christie Pearce Rampone, who was due to be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame on Saturday, has chosen to defer her induction until 2022.
She said she came to the decision “after digesting everything that has transpired over the last several days” and wants to be inducted next year when “we can all properly celebrate women’s soccer.”
Former player says of Riley: ‘I felt claimed’
The NWSL, which comprises 10 teams, had five matches scheduled on Friday and Saturday. The next scheduled matches are Wednesday, where there are three matches on the slate, including the North Carolina Courage playing at home.
The Athletic reported that it interviewed over a dozen players who played under Riley since 2010 and others who are involved with women’s soccer.
One former player who played for Riley on three different teams, Sinead Farrelly, described how a married Riley coerced her into his hotel room to have sex. Farrelly described being under Riley’s control, saying, “I felt claimed. That word honestly describes it perfectly for me, because I have this feeling that he went around and he looked at his prospects, and he zeroed in on me. He claimed me; that’s what his touch felt like. I just remember thinking: ‘Is anyone else seeing this?’ I felt under his control.”
Another reported incident describes Riley coercing Farrelly and teammate Mana Shim back to his apartment and pressuring the two to kiss each other. Shim described a time when Riley invited her to a game footage session in his hotel room and greeted her wearing only underwear. Other former players, who wished to remain unnamed, said the former coach made inappropriate remarks about weight and sexual orientations.
The Athletic asked Riley to comment on his alleged misconduct, to which he replied the former players’ claims were “completely untrue.” According to The Athletic, Riley told them in an email, “I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players.”
In his denials to The Athletic, Riley said, “there’s a chance I’ve said something along the way that offended someone,” but did not “belittle” players. Riley also denied reviewing game footage in his hotel room.
Riley coached the Portland Thorns from 2014-2015, the Western New York Flash in 2016 and the Courage after the Flash dissolved and the franchise rights were sold to a group in North Carolina. He was coach of the year in 2017 and 2018.
Governing bodies to investigate
US Soccer said Friday it will hire someone to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations.
“We take seriously our responsibility to vigorously investigate the abhorrent behavior that has been reported and gain a full and frank understanding of the factors that allowed it to happen,” officials said in a statement. US Soccer not only governs soccer in the country, it supports the NWSL financially. And until this season, US Soccer managed league operations.
The federation said it was in search of an investigator experienced in high-profile workplace misconduct allegations to lead the probe.
FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, also announced it is launching an investigation.
“When it comes to misconduct in football, we would like to reiterate that FIFA’s position is clear: anyone found guilty of misconduct and abuse in football shall be brought to justice, sanctioned and removed from the game,” FIFA officials said.
CNN’s Jill Martin and Jacob Lev contributed to this report.