Baird steps down as NWSL commissioner after Riley abuse allegations

Lisa Baird NWSL

Lisa Baird has stepped down as NWSL commissioner after it was alleged the league failed to act on accusations of sexual coercion and abuse by manager Paul Riley during his tenures in North Carolina and Portland.

Also out: NWSL general counsel Lisa Levine.

The announcement of Baird’s departure came via a terse statement on Twitter: “The National Women’s Soccer League on Friday has received and accepted Lisa Baird’s resignation as its commissioner.”

This weekend’s matches were canceled after a request from the players association, and the short-term outlook is cloudy.

The larger story was fueled by the firing of North Carolina Courage manager Riley on Thursday after a report in The Athletic reported on accusations of several years of abuse from Riley while managing multiple teams, including sexual coercion and inappropriate comments about players’ sexual orientation and weight. The Athletic interviewed more than a dozen players from every team Riley has coached since 2010, focusing on two on-the-record accounts of abusive conditions. Riley was Portland Thorns head coach in 2014 and 2015 before being fired, moving on to head coach of Western New York Flash and then North Carolina after the move of the team.

A core of the issues raised by the North Carolina Courage players: that the league investigated and ultimate decided not to act on the allegations, despite continued objections from players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim. Farrelly received this email from the NWSL several months ago: “We reviewed our files and I can confirm that the initial complaint was investigated to its conclusion. Unfortunately I cannot share any additional details.”

It has been a tumultuous year for the NWSL: managers Richie Burke (Washington Spirit), Christy Holly (Racing Louisville) and Farid Benstiti (OL Reign) all resigned or were terminated this season, many after allegations of abuse. Burke, for example, was terminated by the Spirit after allegations of abuse, while the league sanctioned the Spirit for not acting quicker on the charges.

This is not an issue that will go away: FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation are launching their own investigations. “Player safety and respect is the paramount responsibility of every person involved in this game. That is true across every age, competition and ability level,” U.S. Soccer president Cindy Cone said in a statement. “We owe it to each athlete, each fan and the entire soccer community to take every meaningful action in our power to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. We hope to work together with all parties in this important effort.”

Now in its ninth year, NWSL had reached a point where it had negotiated national contracts and was expanding from eight to 10 teams in 2022.

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August Publications