How Did This Happen? Explaining The Sexual Coercion Allegations Against Courage Coach Paul Riley

One of the most powerful men in women’s soccer was fired on Thursday after reporting from The Athletic.

Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, will be remembered as a dark, devastating day for women’s soccer in the U.S. Paul Riley, one of the most successful coaches in American professional women’s soccer history, was accused of repeated sexual abuse, coercion and harassment by multiple players, chief among them Sinead Farrelly and Meleana “Mana” Shim — all detailed by the reporting of The Athletic’s Meg Linehan and Katie Strang

Where do you even start? The story is so disturbing and overwhelming it’s hard to truly grasp the horror of it all. The best place to start is by making sure Linehan and Strang remain employed and paying to read the article on The Athletic. 

I don’t care if you don’t even come back to this article if you read the full piece in The Athletic. But because not everyone is privileged enough to be able to support journalism financially, we at The18 thought it would useful to outline the repulsive accusations against Riley, the fired head coach of the North Carolina Courage and formerly coach of the Portland Thorns in the NWSL. 

In short — read on for more details — Farrelly and Shim said Riley groomed them with abusive behavior. Footballers like Farrelly and Shim said Riley would belittle his players, comment on their weight or sexuality, go out drinking with them, send half-naked photos and, on occasion, try to coerce them into having sex with him. 

The accusations are supported by teammates who corroborated stories, including USWNT star Alex Morgan. The Athletic spoke to more than a dozen players from Riley’s teams dating back to 2010, plus at least 10 other sources within the game. While many chose to remain anonymous because of Riley’s outsized power in the game, Farrelly and Shim bravely told their stories. 

In response, the NWSL Players Association on Thursday morning demanded an investigation while also immediately suspending anyone involved in said investigation. Additionally, it has asked for the league to explain how Riley was let go from the Portland Thorns after the league first learned of the accusations only to turn around and have a new job in the league within months. 

On Thursday afternoon, the NWSL, Thorns and Courage all released statements within minutes of each other. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said on Thursday afternoon she was “shocked and disgusted” reading the allegations and announced Riley’s contract has been terminated. The Courage also said he was fired, effective immediately. The Thorns said this was the first the organization was hearing of much of what was reported and will try to do better.

Paul Riley has denied almost all of the allegations aside from admitting he occasionally picked up bar tabs for players.

“I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players,” Riley told The Athletic. 

After the #MeToo movement that has picked up steam in the last five years, these allegations are another reminder that predatory men are everywhere. They’re not just soccer coaches, they’re CEOs, politicians, actors, comedians and leaders our communities. 

All of this comes on the heels of Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke being accused of abusive and racist behavior. The Spirit initially said he was stepping down over health concerns before a Washington Post article outlined all of the allegations. Earlier this year, Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was dismissed after an anti-harassment investigation. Last year, Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen was forced out of the league after racist and sexist comments and behavior came to light. Also in Utah, head coach Craig Harrington was placed on leave for reportedly making sexual comments to staff.

It all points to a disturbing trend where women’s professional footballers feel they must remain silent over repeated abuse, whether it’s to protect their own livelihoods and playing careers or to keep growing the sport. After repeatedly trying to get the clubs and leagues involved to punish those accused, the story came out publicly through Linehan and Strang’s reporting. We’re at the point now where this isn’t about a few people, it’s about systemic abuse and taking advantage of women. 

“Farrelly and Shim were practically shouting at the league to do something, to open a new investigation into Riley, to dig into his alleged behavior, even knowing they’d have to relive what happened,” The Athletic story ended. “And that is what the league — women’s soccer — has always lacked: transparency. League and team officials who ask not for silence, but who care about the game and its future as much as the players, and thus are willing to face the consequences no matter what the sunlight brings.”

Who Is Paul Riley?

Let’s start with the accused villain in this story, Paul Riley. Born in Liverpool, Riley has been an outsized figure in professional women’s soccer for more than a decade, having coached in the WPSL, WPS and NWSL. He’s won three NWSL titles, first with the Western New York Flash and then with the Courage, which spawned from the Flash’s ashes. 

The 57-year-old has coached some of the league’s best and brightest, including Morgan, Tobin Heath and Christine Sinclair. And now the two-time NWSL coach of the year is accused of forever altering the lives of some of his players.

What Are The Paul Riley Accusations?

Here’s a quick rundown of the allegations made in the recently published The Athletic article, and there are a lot of them. (Again, read the article if you can afford it, this is just a brief summary.)

  • Farrelly said after an end-of-season drinking party to drown the sorrows of a loss in the WPS final in 2011, Riley coerced Farrelly into having sex with her. He then said it was Farrelly who followed Riley into his room and told her “we’re taking this to our graves,” despite repeatedly bringing it up to her later. 
  • The next year, Farrelly said the Riley coerced her and another teammate on their Long Island semipro team to have sex with Riley. The other teammate did not respond to a request for comment.
  • Farrelly and Shim both said Riley sent photos of himself wearing nothing but compression shorts. 
  • Riley is accused of belittling players to the point where they demand his approval and then praising them to bring them closer to him, often working hard behind the scenes to keep the players on his team, wherever he went. 
  • Players said Riley commented on players’ weights and sexual orientations. They said he called players “idiots,” “motherfuckers” and “fucking embarrassments.”
  • Farrelly said Riley convinced her to not go to the last USWNT training camp before the 2011 World Cup, costing her a potential shot of going to Germany. Riley, Farrelly said, only wanted her on the national team if he was the coach and bashed the national team, accusing players of being disloyal if they left the club to play for their country. 
  • Farrelly and Shim said Riley made them kiss each other while in his apartment one night to get the team out of a particularly grueling and much-hated conditioning drill. 
  • When Farrelly began dating a Thorns teammate, Riley badgered her about it, telling her she wasn’t a “real lesbian” and was “too hot to be a lesbian.” He reportedly asked other teammates to watch out for Farrelly to protect her from the teammate she was dating. 
  • Shim said Riley coerced her into going on a date with him in Portland and was extremely flirtatious. Shim also said Riley convinced her to go with him to a 2015 Women’s World Cup game, though she made sure to never be alone with him. 
  • Many of these alleged actions happened while Riley was married, though they are now separated. He recently had his first child with a woman he met in Utah during the 2020 Challenge Cup. 
  • Riley is accused of inviting players to his apartment or hotel room under the guise of watching film, but when the player arrived he’d be wearing nothing but his underwear. 
  • Riley is said to have drank heavily with players at bars after hours. He also held week-long retreats at his 10,992-square-foot home on Long Island, with some players saying they weren’t voluntary and they were told they weren’t allowed to leave.
  • Riley is accused of being overly intrusive into players’ lives, with some saying he was too controlling over what the players ate and who they dated. 

How Have Those Involved Responded To The Paul Riley Accusations? 

The Athletic emailed Riley a list of 23 questions about the accusations and he said the majority are “completely untrue.” He denied taking players out drinking, though he said he picked up some bar tabs. He claimed there’s no chance he’s ever even said anything that offended anyone, whether commenting on weight or personal relationships. 

The NWSL response sent to The Athletic was to basically say there was an investigation in 2015 and abuse is bad. 

“The league was contacted earlier this year regarding an investigation that was completed in 2015,” the league said in a statement. “Absent any new or additional information, the matter was closed. That said, the behavior described by former players has absolutely no place in our league and will not be tolerated.”

The North Carolina Courage gave The Athletic the following statement.

“When we hired Paul, we made perfectly clear the expectations of the job and the values of our club, and from what we know, he has lived up to those expectations. If there are any players or staff that wish to come forward in accordance with NWSL league policy, we encourage them to report any inappropriate behavior as we will continue to uphold the standard of maintaining a safe and positive environment for all at the club.”

The Thorns sent this to The Athletic on Wednesday.

“Immediately when we became aware of these allegations at the end of our 2015 season, Paul Riley was placed on administrative leave and a thorough investigation advised by outside counsel was conducted, working closely with the NWSL league office. The investigation found no unlawful activity, but that Mr. Riley had violated our policies. As a result, we chose not to renew his contract. The findings of the investigation were shared with the NWSL league office.”

Notable Quotes From The Athletic’s Reporting

“I felt claimed,” Farrelly said when Riley grabbed her hips when she crammed into a van with teammates after a night of drinking. “That word honestly describes it perfectly for me, because I have this feeling that he went around and he looked at his prospects, and he zeroed in on me. He claimed me; that’s what his touch felt like. I just remember thinking: Is anyone else seeing this? I felt under his control.”

“He would make comments about people’s relationship status and their sexual orientation, everything to him mattered, that it would affect the performance of the game depending on what you did outside of practice,” Farrelly said. “He wanted to know everything, and it felt normal to share that stuff.”

“He really commands the kind of social culture he wants on the team,” said one former player from his time in Portland said. “He has the authority. People don’t really push him on it, everyone accepts that’s just how he is. You’re trying to survive in his hierarchy.”

“It’s almost like an abusive relationship, even when it’s not crossing the line of sexual, because he gives and takes,” a former Thorns player said. “The girls just want to please their coaches, they want to do the right thing. Paul said he’ll invest in you, then he takes it away.”

“I asked for a player handbook last year,” Morgan said. “It was an eight-page document, and I asked specifically to see the protections of the player in it. There’s absolutely none. There’s nothing that protects the player. There’s something about social media, there’s something about protecting the league, protecting each club, nothing about player protection. I was shocked, but at the same time, if we don’t absolutely claw and fight for ourselves, we’ve seen that we’re not going to get anything.”

How Are Players Reacting To The Paul Riley Accusations?

Players around the NWSL are understandably outraged, many feeling betrayed. Megan Rapinoe said “Let. It. Burn” and called those involved monsters. Becky Sauerbrunn and many other veterans said it’s time for the NWSL to “get its shit together.”

For more on the responses of women’s footballers, click here.

What’s Next?

The NWSL is facing a major crisis. As the third professional women’s soccer league in the U.S. in the last 20 years, there’s a feeling that this one has to stick or it’s never going to stick. Despite great investment from teams like Angel City — owned by powerful women — the NWSL has to make real changes or risk the players abandoning the league for Europe. 

The issue isn’t necessarily with the NWSL, though it does have its issues. Much of it lies with the culture of men protecting men, as when Riley was called out for abuse in Portland and wound up coaching again a few months later across the country. It’s not just women’s soccer; it’s society. 

The NWSL’s statement outlined a few changes, including anonymous reporting, but other than sending the allegations to outside authorities, the NWSL did not say it will be doing any investigations of its own. 

At this point, the NWSL must look inward and make changes to ensure nothing of this sort ever happens again. The Athletic’s reporting made it clear the NWSL was aware of many of these allegations in 2015, so it appears there was either willful ignorance of the accusations or some horrendous oversights, maybe both.

The NWSL should investigate everyone involved, including those who allowed Riley to continue coaching in the last five years since the allegations were first brought to light in Portland. If found true — and it’s hard not to believe the women — those accountable should be banned from soccer and potentially prosecuted criminally, at least in Riley’s case. 

Changes must be made. This cannot be acceptable.

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