Internal power imbalance at core of NWSL player abuse allegations

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The fallout from the National Women’s Soccer League’s sex abuse scandal has been swift.

The accused, North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, was fired. League commissioner Lisa Baird resigned. So did Washington Spirit CEO Steve Baldwin, whose team’s head coach, Richie Burke, was also fired following a harassment investigation.

Multiple games over the weekend were called off as the league and its players managed the trauma stemming from allegations by former players about Riley’s sexual misconduct and abuse dating back to 2011.

On the latest episode of CBC Sports’ video series Bring It In, host Morgan Campbell and panellists Meghan McPeak and Shireen Ahmed discuss the imbalanced power structure that may have allowed the transgressions to proceed for a decade.

WATCH | Bring It In panel on how NWSL scandal came to be:

Breaking down the NWSL – Paul Riley Scandal | Bring It In

Morgan Campbell, Shireen Ahmed and Meghan McPeak discuss the NWSL’s scandal alledging Paul Riley’s involvement in abusive behaviour and sexual conduct while head coach of the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns. 11:34

Players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim recounted abuse from Riley in a story by The Athletic beginning in 2011 in the now-defunct Professional Women’s Soccer League.

Ahmed said the players may have been hesitant to speak out in fear of risking their sport’s popularity.

“Their league gets very little support to begin with. So if they start airing out the dirty laundry — people don’t support women’s sports to begin with,” she said.

Meanwhile, the players’ pay, in many cases, pale in comparison to coaches in the NWSL. That leads to a dynamic where the coach holds even more power than the job title suggests.

Campbell said that player-coach relationships mostly do not exist in men’s pro sports, which allowed NBA players, for example, to take a stand for racial justice and launch a wildcat strike when Jacob Blake was shot by police in the summer of 2020.

“If a player in a major men’s league has a legitimate gripe, once he airs it, people will listen and things will happen. What we saw here [in the NWSL] was the opposite,” Campbell said.

A male coach wielding power over female athletes also may have contributed to some fear of going public with the accusations.

Untrustworthy investigations

The Portland Thorns, Riley’s former team, said it investigated claims of abuse and passed it onto the league. Riley left the Thorns in 2015, only to be hired by the Courage franchise the following season.

“We see this all the time in sport that men who have allegations against them, they were listened to. [Riley] was let go from Portland Thorns. His contract wasn’t renewed. But was it really investigated in the way it ought to have been?” Ahmed said.

“There’s a pattern of men who are abusive, who are predatory, because these two [Farrelly and Shim] were not prominent players,” Ahmed said.

Farrelly and Shim leaned on long-time U.S. national team member Alex Morgan to support their accusations in filing a complaint in 2015. Still, it was mostly overlooked.

McPeak said the situation reminded her of U.S. Gymnastics, which overlooked the systemic abuse by coach Larry Nassar against its athletes.

U.S. Soccer launched its own investigation into the NWSL.

“Why should we trust U.S. Soccer in investigating this allegation and the other allegations surrounding Riley? Because time and time again, we’ve seen that any sports entity has let down their players,” McPeak said.

“You’re supposed to protect these players for their health and safety. Sexual coercion and sexual abuse and sexual assault counts as health and safety. And U.S. Soccer and the NWSL failed.”

WATCH | Lehner’s Twitter thread could spark change in NHL:

Robin Lehner’s Twitter storm won’t be the last time an athlete speaks out | Bring It In

Morgan Campbell, Shireen Ahmed and Meghan McPeak discuss Robin Lehner’s decision to tweet about the NHL’s alleged prescription drug problem, plus discussion on Jack Eichel’s row with the Buffalo Sabres over his pending neck surgery. 8:47

The panel also discussed Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Robin Lehner’s recent accusations about medical malpractice throughout the league.

Lehner said players are often given pills without much information and encouraged to prioritize short-term healing at the expense of potential long-term effects.



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