After a massive cover-up, U.S. women’s soccer players are taking a stand against the sexual abuse they’ve endured for years.
Following an exposé published by The Athletic in September, players in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) felt empowered to unite together to demand change.
On October 6, at the six-minute mark of every NWSL game, each player stopped, with the game clock still ticking, and joined together at the center of the soccer field. They linked arms, held hands, and put their arms around their teammates and opponents. They stood together in silence as a way to recognize how long victims have been silenced by the league.
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) October 6, 2021
Prior to the games that day, the players posted on Twitter,
“We call on fans to stand in silence with us. During that time, we ask you to stand in that pain and discomfort with us, as we consider what too many of us have been asked to sit with for too long.”
The moment was powerful, to say the least, and it’s the latest move by the players partially meant to put pressure on the league after The Athletic‘s article.
The article in question revealed the story of longtime soccer coach Paul Riley and his extensive history of sexual misconduct with his players.
Dozens of players were interviewed for the article (although only two agreed to be named). They reported an incident in which Riley coerced players into coming back to his apartment and then insisted they kiss each other for his own enjoyment. Players also say that Riley sent unsolicited photos of himself, made harassing comments, and more.
While the harassment began as early as 2011, an official complaint wasn’t filed until 2015. Although Coach Riley was initially let go, he was hired by another team in the league just five months later.
Aaron Lines, the former VP of the Western New York Flash who hired Riley, said,
“Prior to his hire, the club was aware of an internal investigation involving Paul while he was the head coach of the Portland Thorns. No unlawful activity was found through the investigation, and the Flash followed all league protocol in the hiring process and contract approval in conjunction with the NWSL league office.”
Despite all of that “league protocol” that was followed, Riley’s sexual coercion, harassment, and misconduct continued into 2021.
While this scandal was definitely news to the public, sadly, it was not to most of the players. Most of them admitted to knowledge of the systemic problems with misconduct across the league, but they never felt like they were in a position to speak up, much less do anything to change it.
Alex Morgan, a NWSL player and member of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, told The Athletic,
“There definitely has been this shared idea that… the NWSL is kind of the last hope for [the US to have] a women’s soccer league [and] because of that, I feel like there’s this idea that we should be grateful for what we have and we shouldn’t raise important questions – or ask questions at all.”
Now, thanks to The Athletic’s article, players are finally in a position of power, and they’re not wasting any time.
Since the article came out, several coaches have been fired, including Riley, and the league’s commissioner has resigned from her role as well as from her position on the league’s board of directors (though it’s doubtful these resignations were her idea).
But the players expect a lot more from the league than just a few personnel changes. They’ve also demanded that they be involved in the league’s independent investigation and that the scope of the investigation be widened to look into whether or not there has been abuse by any other coaches in the league, as well as if anyone in a position of power within the NWSL failed or refused to investigate claims of abuse by any player or employee at any point in time. Other demands include the league implementing new abuse claim protocols, releasing prior investigation findings, and that the players have a role in hiring the next league commissioner.
These amazing athletes are no longer tolerating this abuse and because of that, their league will hopefully make meaningful changes to protect the players instead of the people in power.