Leadership Cleanse in the NWSL


By Elizabeth DAntonio, Staff Writer

During the 2021 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season, the league’s attention has been focused on multiple investigations into the Washington Spirit starting in August. Former head coach of the team, Richie Burke, was forced to step down due to allegations over him creating a toxic workplace environment including racist comments and verbal abuse aimed toward the players. 

Former NWSL player Kaiya McCullough was released from the team with ownership declaring that she would pursue opportunities overseas. This turns out to not be the true reasoning since McCullough came forward in admitting she exited due to racist comments and other verbal abuse aimed at her by Burke. The Washington Spirit originally released a statement claiming that Burke stepped down from coaching due to health concerns, but that has since been deleted as fans would not let his actions get swept under the rug. 

After Burke lost his position, attention turned to owner Steve Baldwin who continued with the verbal abuse and was also accused of “rage trading” players when he perceives that they have been disloyal to him. Some examples of these “rage trades” would be US Women’s National Team players Mallory Pugh (who was traded to SkyBlue FC-now Gotham FC) and Rose Lavelle (now playing for OL Reign). Starting near the end of August, fans have spent recent games holding up signs to protest Baldwin’s place in the league, and the protests have made it over to MLS games, with DC United owner Steve Kaplan posing for a picture with a sign in bold writing: “Sell The Team Steve (Baldwin).” 

If the investigation into the Spirit ownership wasn’t enough, a story broke earlier this week, shifting national attention back to the league– this time to the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns. 

Two former NWSL players came forward this week through a published article, “The Athletic,” written by sports journalist Meg Linehan. The article gained traction when it was released on Twitter, “amid institutional failure, former NWSL players accuse a prominent coach of sexual coercion,” Paul Riley, who was the head coach of the North Carolina Courage. He had harassed many players during his career in the league, and, finally, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim were done with being silenced. 

Riley’s “pattern” began while he was employed with the Portland Thorns, but he was released from the club back in 2015. Farrelly played for him with the Thorns but never was able to feel “welcomed” in the club due to Riley’s homophobic comments and his attempts to coerce her into sleeping with him. Apparently, Paul Riley has been running his teams like this since 2010 and it is horrifying that he was able to get hired in 2017 to coach the Courage. 

Paul Riley has now been fired since the athletes came forward and his coaching license has been suspended. Attention is now towards the commissioners and league managers that let this abuse happen quietly and continue within the league. 

NWSL games this weekend have been postponed and, as of October 3rd, league commissioner Lisa Baird and general counsel Lisa Levine have been ousted from the league because the FIFA investigation declares they botched the allegations into Burke, Baldwin, Riley, and others. There are still many changes to be made for the league to turn around and promote growth, but new leadership is definitely a start.