Lee Jin-man / AP
National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird resigned after about 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 released the accounts of two former players who claimed wrongdoing, including sexual coercion, by North Carolina coach Paul Riley.
Riley was fired on Thursday and the charges touched a wave of condemnation from players that forced the weekend’s matches to be called off.
In addition, FIFA opened an investigation into the case on Friday. It is rare for the international governing body of football to become involved in a controversy involving a member association. American Football also announced an independent survey on Friday.
American Football co-founded NWSL in 2013 and helped support the league until last year, when it became independent. The league continues its financial support for the league.
“The safety and respect of the player is the primary responsibility of every person involved in this game. This is true across all ages, competitions and abilities,” said US Football President Cindy Cone in a statement. “We owe it to every athlete, every fan and the entire football community to take every meaningful action in our power to ensure that such a thing never happens again.”
American football suspended Riley’s coaching license on Thursday after The Athletic published allegations of abuse from former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim.
FIFA told the Associated Press that it was “deeply concerned” about the matter and would now seek further information from US football authorities on the issues raised.
“Due to the seriousness and severity of the allegations made by players, we can confirm that FIFA’s courts are actively looking into the matter and have launched a preliminary investigation,” FIFA said in a statement to the AP. “As part of this, FIFA will contact the respective parties, including US football and the NWSL, for further information on the various protection issues and allegations of abuse that have been raised.”
The alleged harassment against Farrelly started in 2011 when she was a player at Philadelphia Independence in the now defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league.
She told the website that the harassment continued when Farrelly was with the Portland Thorns. Shim, a former Thorns player, also reportedly experienced harassment. Thorns said Thursday that the team investigated allegations about Riley and passed them on to the league when he was fired.
Riley told The Athletic that the charges were “completely untrue.”
Breaks over the accusations shook the league and forced the weekend’s matches to be called off. The NWSL Players Association said it hoped fans would understand and support the decision.
“It’s OK to take space to treat, feel and take care of yourself,” the union said. “In fact, it’s more than OK, it’s a priority. As players, that will be our focus this weekend.”
Baird became commissioner of the NWSL in February 2020 after serving as head of marketing for the United States Olympic Committee. She was praised for brining new sponsors for the NWSL and increasing the league’s visibility on the national stage.
Olympic Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, who has played in the NWSL since its inception in 2013, suggested the league and women’s sports in general are in the middle of a showdown.
“I think female athletes specifically have been through so much over the years, not just women’s soccer,” Fishlock said. “I think everyone knows what’s happened to USA Gymnastics that’s been going on, and it’s something that has happened in women’s sports over and over and over again this year and year and year. And we’ve never felt confident enough to talk about it, and if we ever felt brave enough to talk about it, then it would just be swept under the rug or we would be told we were wrong … and I think We are at a time now when we’m just done. “
Riley was the head coach of the Thorns in 2014 and 2015. After being released by the Thorns, he became the head coach of the Western New York Flash for one season before the team was sold and moved to North Carolina.
In its ninth season, NWSL has been shaken 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 fired Burke and approved the spirit Tuesday after an independent investigation.
Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired in July following an investigation into the league’s anti – harassment policy. She has denied any wrongdoing.
Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired in September, but the reasons for his resignation were not disclosed.
Olympic Reign coach Farid Benstiti stepped down suddenly in July. On Friday, OL Reign’s CEO and minority owner Bill Predmore said Benstiti was asked to resign following an unknown incident during the exercise.
Benstiti had previously been accused by American 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.