On Sep. 30, 2021, Paul Riley, head coach of the Carolina Courage and former head coach of the Portland Thorns, two prominent National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams, was terminated for allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.
Lisa Baird, former commissioner of NWSL, released a statement on Twitter immediately after the termination addressing the allegations. “I was shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic this morning,” she wrote. “The league, in concert with the North Carolina Courage, has reacted swiftly in response to these new allegations, and former head coach Paul Reilly has been terminated… A safe and secure work environment is a top priority for the league and its collective ownership.” Baird resigned not long after the allegations were made public.
The NWSL had been aware of a myriad of allegations against Riley for almost a decade, concealing them to preserve Riley’s professional reputation, according to a detailed account by The Atlantic.
Not only is the NWSL under scrutiny, but the administration of the Portland Thorns, a beloved local NWSL team, which employed Paul Riley from 2014-2015, is facing criticism for their response in 2015 to allegations brought forward by players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly against Riley.
In 2015 after the Thorns announced that the club wouldn’t be renewing Riley’s contract, they declined to elaborate on their decision, suggesting the era had simply run its course. Following recent investigations, it was revealed that after the Thorns had reported the allegations to the NWSL no further action was taken by the league.
In an open letter published on the Thorns’ website, club owner Merritt Paulson reflected upon this decision, writing, “But we then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy. I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”
NWSL players and fans across the country were quick to criticize the NWSL’s handling of these allegations. In response to the NWSL’s statement, Alex Morgan, a three-time Olympian and two-time World Cup champion with the US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) who played for the Thorns during Riley’s tenure in Portland, tweeted, “The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate the allegations. The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.” Fellow three-time USWNT Olympian and two-time World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe echoed similar frustrations in a tweet, writing, “Never once during this whole time was the right person protected. 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. This statement is beyond disrespectful.”
Wendy Broussard, the administrator of The Rose City Riveters, an organized group of Portland Thorns supporters, declared in a blog post, “The Portland Thorns are complicit in the NWSL’s failures, actively sweeping incidents and complaints under the rug and passing issues off to others. We are furious that the harassment complaints were not investigated fully and that the club did not publicize the investigation or Riley’s violation of club policies, which resulted in his contract not being renewed.”
On Oct. 20, 2021, the NWSL announced that its final would be relocated from Portland to Louisville, due to a request from the NWSL Players Association. The Portland Thorns are admired on a global scale, but due to this scandal the future is uncertain for the team.