The Portland Thorns are winning. They’ve had a breathtaking season, and have—unsurprisingly—made it into league playoffs. But they’re winning more than just the game itself. Their fans adore them, evident in their post-pandemic attendance numbers. They’ve acquired a number of talented players in the past months. Their team is strong, their team is loved.
This all came to a grinding halt on Sept. 30, when sports news site The Athletic published a striking essay detailing allegations of abuse and misconduct performed by Paul Riley, coach of the North Carolina Courage, and former Portland Thorns head coach.
These allegations, shared by Mana Shim and Sinead Farelly—both former Thorns players—report frequent sexual harassment and abuse. Almost immediately, the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) cancelled all games for the following weekend, including the Portland Thorns’ match against the OL Reign. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said that the three day break was intended to give players a “space to reflect.” Though the North Carolina Courage announced Paul Riley’s termination Sept. 30—effective immediately—many players were left reeling with the news that one of the league’s most esteemed coaches had caused so much trauma and pain amongst their peers.
Women playing for the NWSL have been raising their voices for years—about equal pay, about playing conditions. This time, they are forcing the public to listen.
In a statement put out by the NWSL Players Association the night of Oct. 6 demanding real and tangible, “systemic transformation,” from the sports league, players requested that every NWSL higher-up and executive voluntarily submit to investigation of abusive conduct. Along with this, players will require an investigation into the lack of acknowledgement by those in positions of power within the NWSL towards concerns of abusive conduct. The NWSL will be required, by players, to disclose the findings of its investigative reports—even those not limited to the actions of Paul Riley. “The reckoning has already begun,” said the Players Association. “We will not be silent. We will be relentless in our pursuit of a league that deserves the players in it.”
It’s a chilling demand, but one a long-time coming.
It also brings all eyes to Portland—the epicenter of women’s soccer. The Portland Thorns boast the largest audience in the NWSL, with a 2019 attendance average of over 20,000. Many fans of the Portland Timbers, Portland’s Major League Soccer team, throw their unconditional support behind the Thorns; an unprecedented feat, as many other women’s teams attendance numbers trail behind their male counterparts by the thousands. Merrit Paulson, the owner of both the Timbers and the Thorns, has been commended for his unwavering faith in his NWSL team, which has access to many of the same assets as the Portland Timbers. Portland and Paulson himself have been pioneers in creating equality within the NWSL, allowing soccer to be the beating heart of Portland’s sports scene.
Now, though, Paulson is facing immense scrutiny in light of groundbreaking revelations. After two reasonably successful seasons with Paul Riley as head coach, the Portland Thorns parted ways with Riley in 2015, hiring current coach Mark Parsons as his replacement.
The Thorns released a vague statement regarding Riley’s termination, revealing very little about the reasons behind the team’s decision. In light of recent revelations, though, it’s evident Riley was fired in response to private abuse allegations made by both Mana Shim and Sinead Farelly in 2015. “We then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination,” writes club owner Merritt
Paulson in an open letter released Oct. 4, “guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy.”
In his statement, Paulson makes clear his regret at not sharing the reasons behind Riley’s termination, acknowledging that he and the rest of the team’s executives, “deeply regret [their] role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.” Lack of transparency by Paulson and NWSL executives allowed Paul Riley to continue a NWSL career that he did not deserve.
After being removed from the Thorns, he was hired by the New York Flash, which later merged into the North Carolina Courage, who he coached for a number of years without consequence.
The lack of justice for Shim and Farelly is sickening. Though NWSL matches have since resumed, players are still struggling to cope with the trauma Riley and other men in positions of power within the league have managed to cause. In a show of solidarity with Shim, Farelly, and other abuse survivors within the NWSL, players of Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit paused mid-match in a moment of silence, making it increasingly evident that this is not business as usual.
Nor will it be business as usual until NWSL players are given a safe space to play and love what they do without restraint. Because if one thing has been evident over the course of the past two weeks, it is that the players of the NWSL are angry. They are angry—rightfully so— and they will not stop being angry until they reach justice. Their lack of silence will be deafening.