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Commissioner resigns, NWSL postpones games after accusations against former NC Courage coach Paul Riley

Former NC Courage head coach Paul Riley
Mitchell Northam
Former North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley crouches on the sideline in Cary during a 2019 game. The Courage fired Riley after allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Updated: 10:09 p.m.

After a week where two of its head coaches were fired, the National Women’s Soccer League has postponed all of its matches scheduled for this weekend at the request of its players association.

Additionally, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned Friday night. The league shared a brief statement confirming her resignation after it was reported by the Athletic. The league's general counsel, Lisa Levine, was also ousted, according to the Athletic.

North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired Thursday following a lengthy investigative report from the Athletic, where multiple former players accused the 58-year-old of sexual coercion and other instances of sexual misconduct. Riley denied the allegations in an email to the Athletic, but has not spoken publicly since his firing. The U.S. Soccer Federation also suspended his coaching license.

Earlier in the week, the Washington Spirit fired coach Richie Burke after an NWSL investigation revealed that he violated the league’s anti-harassment policy. The investigation was sparked by a Washington Post report in August, outlining Burke’s pattern of verbal and emotional abuse of players.

“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," Baird said in a statement Friday before she resigned. "I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling. 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.

She added: "We have made this decision in collaboration with our players association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue.”

Baird was the subject of criticism because it was revealed in the Athletic story that players contacted the commissioner directly earlier this year with their concerns about Riley. Baird responded via email by saying that a 2015 investigation into Riley's behavior had been "investigated to conclusion." The email was shared publicly by national team forward Alex Morgan.

A former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee and a senior vice president for the NFL, Baird became commissioner of the NWSL in February 2020.

Before Baird's resignation became official, U.S. Soccer announced that it would launch an independent investigation into the allegations against Riley. The former Courage coach is currently barred from participating in any event organized or sponsored by U.S. Soccer.

FIFA also announced that it was "looking into the matter."

Reporters of the Athletic story say they spoke with more than a dozen players representing every team Riley has coached since 2010, and 10 other sources within women’s soccer. Sinead Farrelly and Meleana Shim spoke on the record with the Athletic, claiming Riley coerced them into sex and sexual acts when they played for professional teams he coached in Philadelphia, Long Island and Portland.

Former U.S. women’s national team icon Mia Hamm called the report on Riley “horrifying and disturbing” and added that “leadership” failed Farrelly and Shim. Hamm, a former UNC women’s soccer standout, is also the co-owner of the Los Angeles-based Angel City FC expansion club.

The NWSL Players Association on Thursday demanded a “new, independent investigation” into Riley. He had been the coach of the Courage since they moved to Cary, North Carolina from Buffalo, New York, in 2017. The Courage won a pair of NWSL Championships under his watch. The players' association concluded their statement of demands by saying, “The NWSL has failed us. We are taking our power back.”

In addition to the Courage vs. Spirit game — which was scheduled to be shown to a nationwide streaming audience on Paramount+ on Friday night— the other postponed games include: Racing Louisville FC vs. Gotham FC, Chicago Red Stars vs. Orlando Pride, Kansas City vs. Houston Dash, and Portland Thorns FC vs. OL Reign.

Make-up dates for the games have not been announced.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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