The National Women’s Soccer League has called off its weekend games after former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was accused of sexual abuse.
“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,” NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement Friday. “Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect.”
Both Baird and NWSL General Counsel Lisa Levine were removed from their roles on Friday, multiple sources told The Athletic. It is unclear who will assume their positions.
The cancellations come after accusations of sexual coercion against Riley — who led the Courage to back-to-back NWSL championships in 2018 and 2019 — exploded on Thursday, first appearing in a report from The Athletic.
As a result, the Courage on Thursday fired Riley because of the “very serious allegations of misconduct.”
Riley has denied the allegations. In response to a series of questions from The Athletic, he called the accusations “completely untrue” and wrote “I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players.”
The allegations were reported to the U.S. Center for SafeSport for investigation, Baird said in a statement Thursday.
The NWSL players’ union said in a statement Friday that it had asked the league on Thursday night to cancel this weekend’s games. It said the “pain has stretched across years” for many players, and acknowledged the fans who would be affected by the cancellations.
“We hope that fans will understand and support us through this time,” the statement said. “This is far from over for any of us.”
FIFA said in a statement Friday that it was “deeply concerned” by the allegations, and confirmed that judicial bodies are conducting a preliminary investigation. FIFA will reach out to both U.S. Soccer and NWSL about further information regarding the allegations.
The women’s sports industry has been grappling with a string of allegations against various sports figures in recent years.
Last week, University of Florida women’s basketball players detailed allegations of abuse against former coach Cam Newbauer. And more than 150 women, including decorated U.S. Olympian Simone Biles, came forward accusing Larry Nassar, a former doctor for USA Gymnastics, of sexual abuse during his 18-year tenure. Nassar pleaded guilty to charges of criminal sexual conduct and federal child pornography charges in 2017.
The NWSL was established in 2012 as the successor to Women’s Professional Soccer. In addition to the Courage, the NWSL has nine other teams, including the Chicago Red Stars, the Houston Dash, the Orlando Pride and the Washington Spirit.
The Athletic on Thursday morning detailed the allegations after interviewing more than a dozen athletes who played under Riley since 2010.
Former soccer player Sinead Farrelly said she had experienced “multiple incidents where she felt coerced into having sex” with her coach, according to The Athletic. Riley coached Farrelly during her time with the Philadelphia Independence, New York Fury and Portland Thorns. Farrelly told The Athletic, “I felt under his control.”
Star players, including Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, took to Twitter to slam the NWSL for not taking earlier action against Riley.
“The league was informed of these allegations multiple times,” said Morgan, who played under Riley at Portland several years ago, in a Twitter post Thursday. “The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.”
Morgan also posted emails with Baird from earlier this year in which Morgan raised concerns during a 2015 investigation by the Thorns into Riley, which she said were not looked into.
Rapinoe, a two-time World Cup winner, said in a Twitter post that “never once” was the “right person protected” by the league.
“Not Mana, not Sinead, not us not the players not the little girls who will become us not the big girls who already are us not any of US,” she said in the post.