A prominent head coach in the top women’s soccer league in the United States was fired on Thursday after several former players accused him of verbally and sexually abusing them while they were members of his teams, a troubling reminder of the power dynamics that can put women in professional sports in vulnerable positions even as their prominence and paychecks have grown in recent years.
The head coach, Paul Riley, was the second fired by a National Women’s Soccer League team this week, and the third to lose his job for misconduct since August. Both Riley, who led the North Carolina Courage to two league championships, and Richie Burke, who was dismissed by the Washington Spirit on Tuesday, were removed from their roles after players detailed what they described as abusive and — in Riley’s case — sexually coercive behavior by the men. The third coach, Christy Holly, was fired by Racing Louisville “for cause” in August; the team never revealed the reasons that led to his dismissal.
The most recent accusations against Riley and Burke — recounted in a series of published reports — are a seismic shock to the N.W.S.L., a nine-year-old league still struggling to find its footing.
They also raised questions about the handling of issues of workplace harassment by the league, since many of the accusations were known to and even investigated by the N.W.S.L. but did not result in decisive action until players told their stories publicly.
In a statement, the league’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the accusations against Riley but made no mention of the fact that the players involved had communicated their concerns to her personally earlier this year.
In a blistering statement earlier Thursday, the N.W.S.L.’s players’ union demanded immediate action from the league after a series of accusations in recent years that coaches, owners and team executives had abused or preyed on athletes, and that the league had no effective system to investigate or stop misbehavior.
“The N.W.S.L. has failed us,” the union said, announcing that it was making counseling available to any player seeking help and setting up a pathway for N.W.S.L. players to report abuse.
The players’ union called for an immediate investigation into accusations against Riley; suspensions for any employees accused of violating the league’s anti-harassment policy or not reporting such abuse; and explanations for how some previous accusations were handled.
The call came in the wake of multiple published reports that coaches in the league had abused their players verbally and sexually — sometimes for years, and even after players had reported the abuse to team and league officials.
The biggest revelation came Thursday morning, when The Athletic published an article that included allegations that Riley, who coached the Courage to two consecutive N.W.S.L. titles in 2018 and 2019, coerced a player into having sex with him; forced two players to kiss and then sent them unsolicited sexual pictures; and yelled at and belittled players.
The Athletic also reported that Riley was let go from his head coaching job with the Portland Thorns in 2015 in part because of violations of team policy. In a statement to The Athletic, the Courage said that “from what we know” Riley had met the club’s expectations, and the N.W.S.L. acknowledged that it had declined to reopen an investigation into what happened with Riley and the Thorns despite a request from players to do so.
But hours after the report was published, the team fired Riley.
“In light of today’s reports, the North Carolina Courage have terminated Head Coach Paul Riley, effective immediately, following very serious allegations of misconduct,” the team said in a statement that it said came from ownership, staff and players.
The N.W.S.L. said it would report Riley to the U.S. Center for Safesport, a nonprofit organization established by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to protect athletes from sexual, physical and emotional abuse. The United States Soccer Federation said it had suspended Riley’s coaching license.
Riley denied most of the allegations to The Athletic, and he did not respond to a request for comment from The New York Times.
In its statement, the N.W.S.L. players’ union also demanded to know how Riley was hired by the Western New York Flash and retained when they relocated to North Carolina even after one of his previous employers, the Thorns, had been made aware of accusations against him.
His abrupt dismissal came days after the N.W.S.L. concluded an investigation into another of its teams, the Washington Spirit. The league did not share findings from the investigation, but it announced that the Spirit’s coach, Burke, had been fired for cause and would no longer be allowed to work in the N.W.S.L., and that the Spirit’s owners would be barred from participating in leaguewide governance matters. “The N.W.S.L.’s board of governors has determined that the Spirit and its ownership have failed to act in the best interests of the league,” the N.W.S.L. said in the statement.
The investigation was prompted by reporting in The Washington Post that Burke would regularly “unleash a torrent of threats, criticism and personal insults” on his players. One player, Kaiya McCullough, said she had left the team over the abuse she said she endured.
The accusations had precedent: Two years ago, youth players accused Burke of using abusive language in a previous job. The Spirit stood behind him at the time.
Across many of the stories of abuse from women’s players, a few consistent themes emerged. One was the players’ feelings of powerlessness, or of a responsibility to accept inappropriate behavior rather than report it for fear of causing public problems for nascent pro leagues that often exist on precarious financial foundations. While many members of the World Cup champion United States women’s national team are household names and earn hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, about three-quarters of the players in the N.W.S.L. earn $31,000 or less each season, according to its players’ union.
“It is enraging that the N.W.S.L. knew about this abuse and allowed the abuser to be rehired,” Meghan Klingenberg, a longtime member of the Thorns and a World Cup winner, wrote on Twitter. She added: “Why do we have to put up with inadequate conditions and unsafe work environments while abusers get protection, good pay and a new hunting ground to prey on young women?”
Alex Morgan, a star for the U.S. women’s national team and the N.W.S.L.’s Orlando Pride, then posted on Twitter an email exchange between one of Riley’s accusers and Baird that Morgan said showed the league “had failed to protect its own players.”
In one email to Baird, the player, Sinead Farrelly, appears to offer new information that she “experienced firsthand extremely inappropriate conduct.” Baird replied that the league’s records showed the case “was investigated to conclusion.”
While issues of abuse, leadership shortcomings and a willingness to ignore problems that might reflect badly on women’s soccer have intensified in recent months, they fit a longstanding pattern. The predecessor league to the N.W.S.L., Women’s Professional Soccer, folded in 2012 in part because of a legal fight between the league and the owner of the magicJack team, Dan Borislow, after players accused Borislow of bullying and threatening players.
Last year, Major League Soccer forced Dell Loy Hansen, who owns Real Salt Lake and who also owned the Utah Royals in N.W.S.L., to sell his teams after former players and employees detailed his history of racist and sexist comments. And earlier this season, the N.W.S.L.’s New York-area club, Gotham F.C., fired its general manager, Alyssa LaHue, for what it said were unspecified violations of league policy.