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The movement to protect NWSL players needs to be league’s guiding principle

We better see the real work by people in power just beginning.

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A player strike in American soccer was narrowly averted this past weekend, as the NWSL players’ requests to have games postponed or cancelled out of respect for the players’ mental and emotional health was granted by the league.

The reason for the remarkable request? Absolutely bombshell revelations that longtime NWSL coach Paul Riley plied multiple players on his teams with alcohol and engaged in sexual coercion and harassment, in addition to more harassment concerning players’ weight and sexuality.

In a year of scandals for multiple NWSL teams (Gotham FC GM Alyse LaHue was fired for violating the league’s anti-harassment policy, for an offense that has still not been made public; Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly was fired for cause, although specifics have also not been revealed; OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti was asked to resign by club ownership after making disparaging remarks at a player; the Washington Spirit have had a cascading series of scandals this year, including a cover-up regarding the dismissal of head coach Richie Burke, who was eventually fired by the league for cause due to widespread verbal abuse of players and improper touching, and club owners fighting over control of the club moving forward), the report about Riley was the straw that has broken the proverbial camel’s back. Despite the coach denying allegations in the outstanding report in The Athletic by Meg Linehan, Riley’s club at the time, the North Carolina Courage, fired him later that day.

Meanwhile, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird made a statement that initially said how shocked she was at these allegations, before NWSL and USWNT star Alex Morgan — who it turned out was a driving force in implementing the anti-harassment policy this year in the first place, after being tired of seeing teammates put up with inhumane working conditions — revealed on social media that Baird was effectively lying about not knowing of the allegations against Riley until last week.

After the league agreed to not play games over the weekend, Baird resigned on Friday, given a lack of action to truly safeguard players.

Aside from 2020, in which the pandemic disrupted all facets of life, including sports, and the social protests in which athletes around the country went on strike to protest police violence against people of color, calling off games for really any reason related to player request is pretty much unheard of in American sports. So that drives to the heart of the true turmoil the sheer weight of skeletons being unearthed is causing players right now.

But with no NWSL games for supporters to express their understandable outrage aside from several protests outside NWSL stadiums, the venues moved to other leagues over the weekend, particularly MLS, where there were signs of solidarity in pretty much every stadium.

That included El Trafico at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday, where supporters of 2022 NWSL expansion team Angel City FC had several signs with the prevailing message of the weekend being “Protect NWSL Players.”

Those signs helped keep the conversation going, and amplified pressure on those who have remained in power despite being culpable for abuse against NWSL players.

For now, pressure is firmly on the Portland Thorns, which has been in many regards the standard-bearer of the NWSL since its inception, but which played a central role in covering up Riley’s abuse — which occurred while he was with the Thorns — by firing him but not actually telling anyone publicly it was related to misconduct. Riley was hired by the Western New York Flash months later, which became the North Carolina Courage after moving.

Is it possible Riley went to the Flash and Courage and immediately quit exploiting his players sexually? In theory I suppose it is, but it seems pretty unlikely. But that’s why the movement has turned to #ProtectNWSLPlayers from the public, because the people in charge sure don’t want to do it.

Will some people at the Thorns lose their jobs and/or power over their misdeeds? What about various other clubs where similar other misdeeds have been swept up under the rug for the past decade? Just as important, how can measures be put in place — and actually carried out — to either take action to punish misconduct in the future, if it’s too late, or to prevent abusers — nearly always men, probably not coincidentally — from getting second chances after credible evidence of misconduct has already piled up? Will the league get stronger, will it remain dysfunctional, or will it implode entirely? Obviously these are all questions we don’t know the answers to just yet.

And what about Angel City in all of this? We’ve seen the nascent club has had a misstep or two along the way themselves, most notably the very confusing story of whether or not star vlogger (and abuse enabler) David Dobrik was actually ever an investor in the club, before those privileges were stripped from him amid tons of bad press about his circle and criminal sexual behavior.

To their credit, Angel City was the very first NWSL club to make a public statement after the report about Riley dropped last Thursday.

One could make a credible point that as a club with no games played yet that’s just building for the first time, it’s a bit easier to stick one’s neck out when you have a blank-ish slate of your own. Still, they could have sat on the sidelines, and by releasing a statement, that unquestionably put pressure on other clubs to address it, too. And if they take their words to heart, they should also do everything to ensure a similar scandal never happens at ACFC in the future.

It’s also worth applauding the Angel City supporters who fought the club’s reported first head coaching target, on the basis of gender. The club looked set to hire a man, but fans demanded they hire a woman. Even at the time, I noted that it seemed kind of unfair to the particular man in question, but that he would get another chance. In the end, he did — Sean Nahas, an assistant coach to Riley at North Carolina, believe it or not, has taken over as interim manager — and ultimately, the fans’ concerns were warranted. While I can’t say whether or not Nahas himself would have abused players, and it’s worth remembering that women coaches can and have also abused players over the years as well, with so many men finally being held accountable for unprofessional and inappropriate conduct around the league this year, frankly it’s time to give women more chances and put safeguards in place to ensure they don’t eff it up in terms of protecting the players. Above all, that has to be the guiding principle for the NWSL in the immediate aftermath of this year of horrible scandals for this league.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.