The North Carolina Courage fired its head coach Paul Riley Thursday following allegations of sexual misconduct, coercion, and inappropriate behavior spanning more than a decade.
In a long piece in The Athletic, players formerly coached by Paul Riley, until today the head coach of the North Carolina Courage, a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team, detail multiple instances of sexual misconduct and coercion the players say they were subjected to.
The explosive story, which focuses on midfielder Sinead Farrelly who played for Riley with three teams across three leagues beginning in 2011, details a pattern of abuse and exploitation dating back over a decade.
In the story, Farrelly says Riley coerced her into having sex with him in his hotel room in 2011 after their Philadelphia Independence team lost the Women’s Professional Soccer championship. A pattern of inappropriate behavior and sexual misconduct on Riley’s part towards Farrelly began after that, continuing “during the offseason and later when Farrelly played for [Riley’s] semi-pro team in Long Island in 2012.”
Farrelly said the sexual coercion continued in 2013 with the launch of the NWSL, when Riley traded for her after he was hired by the Portland Thorns.
“[Riley] haunted Farrelly mentally and emotionally,” according to The Athletic story. “She even collapsed in a July 2014 game due to the toll it took on her.”
A second player, Meleana “Mana” Shim, told The Athletic that before the Thorns’ 2015 season, she became “entangled in the social culture that Riley had cultivated in Portland and with his previous teams.” The Athletic reports that Riley often texted Shim and asked her “to watch film with him, even sometimes at his apartment and in his hotel room.
“After a night when the team went out to a bar, Farrelly and Shim ended up at Riley’s apartment. He offered them more alcohol in his apartment, the two players said, and asked Shim to dance with him and pressured the two teammates to kiss so the team wouldn’t have to run a suicide mile drill that week.”
The Athletic says Riley’s “pattern” of drinking with his players continued during his time with the Thorns, creating a “social culture” by an authoritative figure and players “trying to survive in his hierarchy.” Farrelly and other players describe Riley’s ability to control them on and off the field—how he threatened their careers, guilted them about being tapped for the national team, and created situations where they were alone, drunk, or otherwise socially vulnerable.
They and other players say despite Riley’s harassment, they felt indebted to him, like appeasing him was critical for their careers. They say they felt uncomfortable when he bought drinks, asked them out on dates, or brought them back to his apartment, but felt like they had no choice. Riley would allegedly keep players off-balance with verbal abuse, making them “constantly worried about losing playing time and a midseason trade that would uproot their lives.”
Even more troublingly, The Athletic’s story recounts a culture of silence inside women’s soccer, in which many players have been subject to sexism, racism, or other forms of harassment and abuse for the last two decades, but were discouraged from speaking up.
In 2015, teammate Alex Morgan, an internationally renowned goalscorer and co-captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, helped Shim email a complaint to Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and the team’s Human Resource director Nancy Garcia Ford. When Garcia Ford met with Shim, she told the player she didn’t have a legal claim because Shim was unable to provide any corroborating evidence, according to The Athletic.
“That fall, the Thorns announced that Riley would not be retained for a third season. From the outside, it looked like the team’s poor results had forced Portland’s hand. This week, Paulson acknowledged … that the findings of the investigation factored in the team’s decision,” The Athletic reported.
Reports on the sport’s toxic culture are eerily similar to those from Simone Biles and other gymnasts subjected to sexual abuse during their time with USA Gymnastics, as administrators and officials willfully ignored Larry Nassar’s crimes. Like Nassar, Riley was investigated and removed from his position when allegations about him became impossible to ignore, but wasn’t blacklisted or even tarnished.
Five months after Riley left Portland, he was snatched up by another league team, the Western New York Flash.
In 2017, he became head coach of the North Carolina Courage.
This month, a few Courage players told The Athletic on the condition of anonymity that Riley’s inappropriate behavior persisted, although he has “laid low” for the past few years. Thanks to continual pressure by Farelly, Shim, and Morgan, the league now has an anti-harassment policy and some player protections after years of nothing. But despite their ongoing concerns about player safety, the NWSL has still not opened a new investigation into Riley or looked back at his alleged behavior.
The Courage firing Riley may make it easier for their players to trust their leadership. But the move followed a statement published in The Athletic in which the Courage defended the coach, saying when Riley was hired, team officials “made perfectly clear the expectations of the job and the values of our club, and from what we know, he has lived up to those expectations. If there are any players or staff that wish to come forward in accordance with NWSL league policy, we encourage them to report any inappropriate behavior as we will continue to uphold the standard of maintaining a safe and positive environment for all at the club.”
One of the most disturbing elements of The Athletic’s story is the pattern of larger institutional silence around women’s sports. Riley’s behavior may have come to light, but that’s no guarantee of a safe environment for future players. If there is another Nassar out there, a college soccer coach exploiting women’s dreams of going to the Olympics to prey on them, how would anyone know?
During his tenure as head coach, Riley led the Courage to the league championship in 2018 with a 3-0 win over the Thorns team he formerly coached.
The Athletic reports that on Wednesday, Riley responded to a list of 23 questions emailed to him about the sexual coercion allegations.
In his responses, Riley said the majority of the allegations are “completely untrue,” and that he never had sex with or made sexual overtures towards the players.
He said he sometimes socialized with players and occasionally picked up bar tabs, “but I do not take them out drinking,” The Athletic reported.
Riley conceded that over the course of his career, “there’s a chance I’ve said something along the way that offended someone.” But he added, “I do not belittle my players, comment on their weight, or discuss their personal relationships.” Riley also denied holding film sessions in his hotel room.
“We, the NWSL players, stand alongside Sinead Farrelly, Mana Shim, Kaiya McCullough and each of the players who brought their stories to light—both known and unknown. Words cannot adequately capture our anger, our pain and our sadness, and disappointment,” the NWSL players union said in a statement released Thursday on Twitter.
The NWSL Players Association on Thursday reached out to former and current players who may have been subjected to sexual abuse by Riley.
The players union that according to its website serves as the primary voice for NWSL players has made available a sports psychologist after the allegations against Riley were made public. The union also established an anonymous hotline that will enable NWSL players to report instances of abuse, and contact information for players who want to report violations of the league’s anti-harassment policy, according to a statement on Twitter.
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