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Sports

NWSL players look to reclaim sport after scandals

NWSL Dash Thorns Soccer
Steve Dipaola
/
AP
Portland Thorns and Houston Dash players, along with referees, gather at midfield, in demonstration of solidarity with two former NWSL players who came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against a prominent coach, during the first half of an NWSL soccer match in Portland, Ore., Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.

After nearly a week of dealing with the fallout from accusations of sexual harassment and mistreatment leveled against a prominent coach, the players of the National Women’s Soccer League have returned to the field in hopes of reclaiming their sport.

“I think with that type of heaviness, comes the realization that things need to change. We’ve been doing a lot of grieving for our fellow players, we’ve been doing a lot of factfinding, we’ve been doing a lot of having big discussions about where this league should go and how it should look like,” Portland Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg said. “And the one thing that keeps coming back to me, and to us, over and over and over again is that, without any say in the league, without any power, without the financial resources to protect ourselves, this will continue happening.”

The league called off games last weekend in the wake of the allegations leveled at North Carolina coach Paul Riley. Riley was fired and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned amid the fallout while FIFA and U.S. Soccer opened investigations.

The players resumed the season Wednesday night, but made a powerful statement at each of the three scheduled games by stopping play in the sixth minute and gathering together with coaches in a midfield circle.

The action was a show of unity, as well as a gesture of solidarity with former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, who came forward to The Athletic to recount alleged harassment and misconduct, including sexual coercion. Riley has denied the allegations.

“It's just been a lot,” said Klingenberg, who along with her teammates wore a warmup shirt that read “No More Silence” before a game against the Houston Dash.

It has been a tumultuous season for the top women's professional soccer league in the United States.

Before the allegations against Riley were made public last week, the Washington Spirit fired head coach Richie Burke for violating the league's antiharassment policy.

The OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti was asked to resign in July for behavior at a team practice. Gotham FC dismissed general manager Alyse LaHue this summer for violation of the antiharassment policy. Racing Louisville fired coach Christ Holly in early September for reasons that have not been disclosed.

Reign defender Lauren Barnes said there's been a reckoning in the league, which is in its ninth season: It's time to listen to the players.

“I think that’s been the biggest issue, not necessarily how we’ve been quiet, it’s more so taking us seriously and believing us,” Barnes said. “And I think that’s been the biggest battle for women in probably any workspace, sports or not-sports related, is being believed and always having to fight for ourselves."

It's not just a problem for the NWSL. Two dozen players for Venezuela's national team publicly came forward this week with allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against a former coach in the nation's soccer federation.

In Australia, Lisa De Vanna accused former players with the senior national team of harassment and bullying when she was called up in 2001 at age 17.

“In any sporting organization and in any environment, grooming, preying and unprofessional behavior makes me sick," De Vanna told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Farrelly and Shim recounted alleged misconduct by Riley dating back to his time at the Philadelphia Impact of the Women's Professional Soccer league. Riley later coached the Thorns for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

The Thorns decided not to renew Riley's contract with the team after an investigation into a complaint. The team passed those results on to the league. Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, which was eventually sold and moved to North Carolina as the Courage.

Courage players did not speak after Wednesday night's game against Racing Louisville, nor did interim coach Sean Nahas.

The Thorns put out a statement demanding, in part, that Portland general manger Gavin Wilkinson be removed from his role. Management announced a short time later that Wilkinson had been placed on administrative leave from duties connected to the Thorns, but not from Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers, while the matter is investigated.

“We are in full support of anybody who’s coming forward with their story, and with their struggles, and we want to honor that pain by making sure we get to the bottom of things and not put them on blast and not put them in the spotlight if they don’t want to be," Klingenberg said. "But we feel like it’s really important to know what happened here so it doesn’t happen other places.”

In Cary, North Carolina, season ticket holder Ginny Ditzel wiped away tears during player introductions before Wednesday night's game.

“It’s tough,” Ditzel said. “My heart breaks. They work so hard. They get paid peanuts. They play their hearts out for the enjoyment of us fans.”

Ditzel added: “They deserve better.”

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