NWSL Commissioner Baird resigns amid scandal

By Anne M. Peterson
Associated Press

National Women's Soccer League Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned after some 19 months on the job amid allegations that a former coach engaged in sexual harassment and misconduct.

Baird's resignation was announced by the league late Friday, a day after The Athletic published the accounts of two former players who claimed misconduct, including sexual coercion, by North Carolina coach Paul Riley.

Riley was fired by the Courage on Thursday and the allegations touched off a wave of condemnation by players that forced this weekend's games to be called off.

FILE - National Women's Soccer League Commissioner Lisa Baird, pictured here in 2017, resigned after some 19 months on the job amid allegations that a former coach engaged in sexual harassment and misconduct.

Additionally, FIFA on Friday opened an investigation into the case. It is rare that soccer's international governing body gets involved in a controversy involving a member association. U.S. Soccer also announced an independent investigation on Friday.

U.S. Soccer was instrumental in founding the NWSL in 2013 and helped support the league until last year, when it became independent. The federation continues its financial support of the league.

“Player safety and respect is the paramount responsibility of every person involved in this game. That is true across every age, competition and ability level,” U.S. Soccer President Cindy Cone said in a statement. “We owe it to each athlete, each fan and the entire soccer community to take every meaningful action in our power to ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

U.S. Soccer suspended Riley’s coaching license Thursday after The Athletic published claims of abuse made by former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim.

FIFA told The Associated Press it was “deeply concerned” by the case and will now be seeking further details from American soccer authorities about the issues raised.

“Due to the severity and seriousness of the allegations being made by players, we can confirm that FIFA’s judicial bodies are actively looking into the matter and have opened a preliminary investigation,” FIFA said in a statement to the AP. “As part of this, FIFA will be reaching out to the respective parties, including US Soccer and NWSL, for further information about the various safeguarding concerns and allegations of abuse that have been raised.”

The alleged harassment of Farrelly started in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league.

She told the website the harassment continued when Farrelly was with the Portland Thorns. Shim, a former Thorns player, also allegedly experienced harassment. The Thorns said Thursday that the team investigated claims about Riley and passed those on to the league when he was dismissed.

Riley told The Athletic the allegations were “completely untrue.”

Former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired after allegations of sexual harassment.

Outcry over the allegations rocked the league and forced this weekend’s games to be called off. The NWSL Players' Association said it hoped fans would understand and support the decision.

“It is OK to take space to process, to feel and to take care of yourself,” the union said. “In fact, it’s more than OK, it’s a priority. That, as players, will be our focus this weekend.”

Baird became commissioner of the NWSL in February, 2020, after serving as chief marketing officer of the United States Olympic Committee. She was praised for brining new sponsors to the NWSL and increasing the league's visibility on the national stage.

OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, who has been playing in the NWSL since its inception in 2013, suggested the league, and women’s sports overall, are in the midst of a reckoning.

“I think women athletes specifically have gone through so much over the years, not just women’s football,” Fishlock said. “I think everybody knows what’s happened with USA Gymnastics that has gone on, and this is something that has been happening in women’s sports over and over and over again for years and years and years. And we’ve never felt safe enough to talk about it, and if we ever felt brave enough to talk about it, then it would just get swept under the rug, or we were told that we were in the wrong ... and I think we’re at a point now where we’re just done.”

Riley was head coach of the Thorns in 2014 and 2015. After he was let go by the Thorns, he became head coach of the Western New York Flash for a season before the team was sold and moved to North Carolina.

In its ninth season, the NWSL has been rocked by a series of recent scandals involving team officials.

Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired after a Washington Post report detailed verbal and emotional abuse of players. The league formally dismissed Burke and sanctioned the Spirit on Tuesday after an independent investigation.

Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired in July after an investigation connected to the league’s antiharassment policy. She has denied any wrongdoing.

Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired in September but the reasons for his dismissal were not made public.

OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti abruptly resigned in July. On Friday, OL Reign chief executive officer and minority owner Bill Predmore said Benstiti was asked to step down after an undisclosed incident during practice.

Benstiti had previously been accused by U.S. national team midfielder Lindsay Horan of sexist behavior during his time as coach of Paris Saint-Germain. Horan has said she was berated by Benstiti because of her weight.

FIFA’s judicial bodies on Friday opened an investigation into the sexual harassment scandal involving a coach in the National Women’s Soccer League as this weekend’s games were called off.

Claims by two former players of sexual coercion against Paul Riley led to the North Carolina Courage coach being fired Thursday. FIFA told The Associated Press it was “deeply concerned” by the case and will now be seeking further details from American soccer authorities about the issues raised.

It is rare for world soccer’s governing body to make such an intervention in a controversy involving a member association.

“Due to the severity and seriousness of the allegations being made by players, we can confirm that FIFA’s judicial bodies are actively looking into the matter and have opened a preliminary investigation,” FIFA said in a statement to the AP. “As part of this, FIFA will be reaching out to the respective parties, including US Soccer and NWSL, for further information about the various safeguarding concerns and allegations of abuse that have been raised.”

U.S. Soccer suspended Riley’s coaching license following a report Thursday by The Athletic in which former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim recounted alleged abuse by the English-born Riley.

The alleged harassment of Farrelly started in 2011 when she was a player with the Philadelphia Independence of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league.

She told the website the abuse continued when Farrelly was with the Portland Thorns. Shim, a former Thorns player, also allegedly experienced harassment. The Thorns said Thursday that the team investigated claims about Riley and passed those on to the league when he was dismissed.

“When it comes to misconduct in football,” FIFA said, “we would like to reiterate that FIFA’s position is clear: anyone found guilty of misconduct and abuse in football shall be brought to justice, sanctioned and removed from the game.

“FIFA takes any allegation of misconduct reported to it extremely seriously and will continue to cooperate together with the relevant national and international authorities on any allegation or report that is made in confidence to FIFA about abuse or misconduct in football.”

NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said the decision to call off the games this weekend was made with the players’ association.

“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling,” said Baird, who came to the NWSL in early 2020. “Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now. Our entire league has a great deal of healing to do, and our players deserve so much better.”

OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, who has been playing in the NWSL since its inception in 2013, suggested the league, and women’s sports overall, are in the midst of a reckoning.

“I think women athletes specifically have gone through so much over the years, not just women’s football,” Fishlock said. “I think everybody knows what’s happened with USA Gymnastics that has gone on, and this is something that has been happening in women’s sports over and over and over again for years and years and years. And we’ve never felt safe enough to talk about it, and if we ever felt brave enough to talk about it, then it would just get swept under the rug, or we were told that we were in the wrong … and I think we’re at a point now where we’re just done.”

Riley told The Athletic the allegations were “completely untrue.”

Riley was head coach of the Thorns in 2014 and 2015. After he was let go by the Thorns, he became head coach of the Western New York Flash for a season before the team was sold and moved to North Carolina.

Riley was WPS Coach of the Year in 2011 and earned the same honors in the NWSL in 2017 and 2018. The Courage won the NWSL championship in 2018 and 2019.

The NWSL Players’ Association said Friday that it requested that this weekend’s games be postponed. The union said it hoped fans would understand and support the decision.

“It is OK to take space to process, to feel and to take care of yourself,” the union said. “In fact, it’s more than OK, it’s a priority. That, as players, will be our focus this weekend.”

The union has also called for an independent investigation of the allegations leveled at Riley. The union demanded the suspension of any league or club staff who have been accused of violating the league’s antiharassment policy or of failing to report misconduct, no matter when it occurred.

The union demanded to know how Riley was hired by another club after allegations of misconduct surfaced while he was with the Thorns.

The league did not immediately respond to those demands. The union is currently negotiating its first contract with the league.

In its ninth season, the NWSL has been rocked by several recent scandals involving team officials.

Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired after a Washington Post report detailed verbal and emotional abuse of players. The league formally dismissed Burke and sanctioned the Spirit on Tuesday after an independent investigation.

Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired in July after an investigation connected to the league’s antiharassment policy. She has denied any wrongdoing.

Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired in September but the reasons for his dismissal were not made public.

OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti abruptly resigned in July. On Friday, OL Reign chief executive officer and minority owner Bill Predmore said Benstiti was asked to step down after an undisclosed incident during practice.

Benstiti had previously been accused by U.S. national team midfielder Lindsay Horan of sexist behavior during his time as coach of Paris Saint-Germain. Horan has said she was berated by Benstiti because of her weight.