‘One of the worst weeks this league has ever seen’: Accusations of sexual harassment, homophobia shake NWSL

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Content warning: sexual violence, sexual coercion, abuse

Carli Lloyd has been around the game a long time. The USWNT star graduated from Rutgers University in 2004 and since has seen her fair share of ups and downs across various professional leagues.

Earlier this month, however, marked a new low.

On Sept. 30, the National Women’s Soccer League’s North Carolina Courage fired head coach Paul Riley, a three-time NWSL champion and two-time Coach of the Year for “very serious allegations of misconduct.”

As if being the league’s third head coach to lose their coaching job for misconduct since August — Richie Burke of the Washington Spirit was dismissed following allegations of verbal and emotional abuse, and Christy Holly of Racing Louisville was dismissed “for cause” — was not a red enough flag alone, the firing came hours after an article written by The Atlantic’s Meg Linehan was published detailing Riley’s horrifying history of ​​sexual coercion.

The investigation highlighted the experiences of Sinead Farrelley and Meleana “Mana” Shim, both players receiving an overwhelming amount of support from the NWSL community for coming forward with their stories.

Farrelly played under Riley with three different teams starting in 2011. On the way home from the WPS final, Riley allegedly forced her to sit on his lap in the team’s crowded van before proceeding to grab her hips.

“I felt claimed,” Farrelly told Linehan. “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?”

Back at the hotel later that evening, Farrelly was allegedly coerced by Riley into having sex with him and ended up spending the night in his room. Though it appeared she was able to break free from his reins at the start of the 2013 season after joining a new team, Riley traded for her when the Portland Thorns hired him later that year. According to Farrelly, he has haunted her mentally and emotionally ever since, to the point where she collapsed during a game in July 2014 due to the unbearable toll.

In 2015, Riley allegedly started texting Shim to come watch film with him at his apartment. The behavior allegedly escalated one night after an evening at a bar with the team when Riley brought Shim and Farrelly back to his place. He allegedly offered them more alcohol and asked them to kiss each other while he watched, claiming their compliance would mean less conditioning for everyone at practice.

“I felt from the beginning like I owed him,” Shim told the Athletic.

While Riley’s alleged actions are disturbingly inappropriate, perhaps what is even more concerning in the grand scheme of it all is that, with the help of teammate and former Golden Bear Alex Morgan, Shim did send a complaint to the Thorns owner and HR director after the incident — in 2015.

2015.

Shim was told that she would not receive a legal claim as was unable to provide any corroborating evidence. Though the Thorns announced Riley would not be returning the following season, the allegations were never disclosed. It simply looked as though the Thorns’ poor season was responsible for his firing.

After Shim and Farrelley bravely came forward, public outcry over the allegations led to games the weekend of Oct. 2 being canceled, with games Wednesday Oct. 6 marking the NWSL’s first return to action since the accusations.

In all three matches, including Lloyd’s homecoming game outside of Philadelphia that featured Gotham FC and Washington Spirit in what was originally intended to be a celebratory sendoff for the retiring USWNT legend, teams stopped play in the sixth minute to come together, arm-in-arm, at the center of the field in solidarity — the sixth minute representing the six years it took for their colleagues abuse complaints to be heard.

“(After) one of the worst weeks this league has ever seen, I’m really proud of everyone for coming out playing despite what’s been going on,” Lloyd said in her postgame news conference. “This could be a huge reset to make things better — to have policies in place, to vet ownerships, to vet coaching staff and just make things better. Because they should be better.”

This is not an isolated incident. For so long, players have endured sexism, homophobia and racism. Yet, they’ve remained silent for “the sake of the sport.” The NSWL is already fragile given its lack of funding and the swift dissolve of its predecessors, and women are worried that shedding light upon such scandals will jeopardize the league, and subsequently, their future. Women’s leagues across all sports tread similar waters: The WNBA and gymnastics are equally sombering examples. Current authoritative infrastructures must be rebuilt to keep women safe and successful in sport.

In an interview with NBC News, when asked what she wanted to say to all the young girls that are watching this unfold, Shim replied, “I hope you are safe. … We want future players to be safe in the game of soccer.”

Is that so much to ask?

Allie Coyne covers sports. Contact her at [email protected].