Sexual abuse allegations upend National Women’s Soccer League, FIFA to investigate

The National Women’s Soccer League suspended all its weekend matches amid allegations of sexual abuse by former coaches. The North Carolina Courage fired coach Paul Riley following reports he sexually coerced multiple players, and the Washington Spirit coach was fired after reports he verbally and emotionally abused players. Amna Nawaz discusses with The Washington Post's Molly Hensley-Clancy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The National Women's Soccer League has suspended all of its weekend matches, amid allegations of abuse, including sexual abuse, of players by former coaches.

    Amna Nawaz is back with a look at the widening scandal.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, the games were postponed after the players demanded an end to what they call systematic abuse in the league.

    On Thursday, North Carolina's professional team, the Courage, fired coach Paul Riley, following reports he sexually coerced multiple players. According to a report this week by The Athletic, Riley coerced one player to have sex with him, forced two players to kiss one another, and sent unsolicited sexual pictures.

    Another coach, the coach of the Washington Spirit, was fired earlier this week after The Washington Post reported he verbally and emotionally abused players. This now makes three coaches the National Women's Soccer League has fired in its ranks for misconduct since August.

    I'm joined by Molly Hensley-Clancy. She's an investigative sports reporter for The Washington Post.

    Molly, welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for joining us.

    This league is just a few years old. It's less than a decade old. This year alone, three coaches fired since August. Why are we learning about all this now?

  • Molly Hensley-Clancy, The Washington Post:

    I think the simple answer is that, up until this moment, players simply haven't felt able to speak out. They have been too afraid of losing their jobs. And they haven't had the security to do it.

    In my case, I heard that players had been leaving the Washington Spirit because of verbal and emotional abuse by the coach, Richie Burke, but it took a player going on the record, Kaiya McCullough. She was really willing to speak out about what she had endured. And she became the first player in the league to really say with her name to it what had happened to her.

    And then I think, yesterday, this Athletic story about Paul Riley had details that were absolutely harrowing that really cut to the heart of some of the stuff that players have been going through, the sexual coercion. And it implicated the league in failures to really address the problem. And that really angered a lot of players.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we have seen some outrage from some of the superstars of the sport, right, the women's national team members, people like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, online.

    The players union has come out and basically said the league failed us, that league officials knew about this going on and didn't do anything about it.

    So, Molly, what do we know about what officials knew, when they knew it, and what they did or didn't do?

  • Molly Hensley-Clancy:

    In the case of Paul Riley, Alex Morgan actually posted some e-mails on Twitter that showed that one of Riley's victims had gone to the league commissioner, Lisa Baird, in April and basically begged Baird to open an investigation into the behavior.

    They had done a previous investigation in 2015 of him. The Portland Thorns had found that he had violated their policies. He was dismissed, or his contract wasn't renewed. And then he was hired back into the league within months.

    And in this case with Lisa Baird, she did not investigate the victims' claims, and she eventually went to the press because she couldn't get the league to look into them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, the league has now called off five games scheduled for this weekend. Have we heard anything else from them in the way of a response?

  • Molly Hensley-Clancy:

    No.

    I mean, I think that Lisa Baird said she worked with the players to have this postponement. But I think that she's still absolutely under pressure. I think there are real questions about how Riley was rehired.

    In the case of all of the coaches that were fired this year or dismissed, they have all faced previous allegations of misconduct. I reported that Richie Burke had been accused of abuse at the Washington spirit. And he was hired anyway.

    So, I think that there's real questions about how the coaches in the league kept getting hired into these jobs.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So all of this has unfolded really in a matter of several weeks.

    And like a lot of abuse scandals, once one story comes forward, the dam kind of breaks, and more people and more people come forward. Is there a sense that there could be more stories from within this one women's soccer league?

  • Molly Hensley-Clancy:

    Unfortunately, I think there is.

    I think that, as soon as players start feeling safe, they are going to keep coming forward. And I'm certainly looking and have heard of other stories. I think there's, unfortunately, a lot more to come out. And the question is, how is the league going to deal with this moving forward?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    One of the things about the National Women's Soccer League a lot of people might not know is, they associate the world superstars, like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, and they play at their level, but most of the women in this league are barely making a living playing a sport that they love.

    What does all of this tell us about the power dynamic at play and the kind of position that these women are in?

  • Molly Hensley-Clancy:

    The NWSL is incredibly restrictive on the rights of players, I think more so than most professional sports league.

    There's no free agency of any kind. Players can be traded at any moment, at any point, no matter how long they played for a team. And this is all in the context of most of them making less than $30,000 a year.

    This year, the players union has raised this campaign where they're all working second jobs, or many of them are, just to get by. And so I think that more than most professional men's sports leagues, you're right, there is this power imbalance. There is this dynamic where women don't have the economic power.

    The players I spoke to, some of them that were afraid to go on the record. They couldn't lose their jobs because they were making $30,000 a year and they were simply just economically not able to get by if they lost their job. And that's just the reality that most of them are facing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We know you're going to be sticking with this story. We will be following your reporting on it as well.

    That is Molly Hensley-Clancy, sports investigative reporter for The Washington Post.

    Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Molly Hensley-Clancy:

    Thanks for having me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, late today, soccer's international governing body, FIFA, announced that it has opened an investigation into the sexual harassment allegations.

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