NWSL team owner apologizes, regrets ‘systemic failure’ in abuse handling

Los Angeles (AFP) – Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson issued an apology on Monday to two ex-players for his team’s role in the handling of sexual coercion allegations against former soccer coach Paul Riley.

Paulson said the team should have been more open about the sacking of Riley in 2015 and that a lack of accountability and transparency and the subsequent inaction that followed shows a “systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”

“We then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy,” Paulson wrote in an open letter on the team’s website on Monday. “I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”

Paulson said the Thorns didn’t disclose the investigation publicly, which led people to believe Riley’s dismissal was the result of poor results on the field.

He said the Thorns conducted an internal investigation into Riley after then-players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim made the alleged accusations. He said the club notified the National Women’s Soccer League of the results of their investigation. 

“Ultimately, we could have done more. I apologize to Mana, Sinead and everyone else who is hurting as a result,” he wrote. 

“We applaud not only their bravery in coming forward, but their determination to be heard. It should not have been this hard, nor taken this long, at great personal and professional toll to the survivors,” Paulson added.

Paulson’s letter comes in the wake of The Athletic’s reporting last week detailing wide-ranging sexual misconduct by the 58-year-old Englishman Riley, spanning multiple teams and leagues since 2010.

Farrelly, who played for Riley at three different teams, accused the coach of “sexual coercion” while he was her coach at the Philadelphia Independence.

She said she had been coerced into having sex with the coach after going to his hotel room following a defeat in the Women’s Professional Soccer League final in 2011. Riley told her “we’re taking this to our graves” after the incident.

In another incident during his reign with the Thorns, Farrelly and Shim said Riley forced them to kiss each other while at his apartment. “This guy has a pattern,” Shim told The Athletic.

Portland teammate and national team star Alex Morgan, who played under Riley at the same time, backed the players’ allegations and said she had tried to help them file a report with the league.

“I am sickened and have too many thoughts to share at this moment,” Morgan wrote in a tweet on Thursday. 

“Bottom line: protect your players. Do the right thing NWSL.”

Riley went on to become the coach of the North Carolina Courage after the Thorns sacked him. The Courage fired Riley last week.

– Denies wrongdoing –

In a statement to The Athletic, Riley denied wrongdoing, describing the allegations as “completely untrue.”

“I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players,” he told the website.

The league’s player’s union, the NWSLPA, said in an earlier tweet that “systemic abuse” was “plaguing the NWSL.”

“Words cannot adequately capture our anger, pain, sadness and disappointment,” the NWSLPA said.

The NWSL announced Sunday it had retained a lawyer to oversee a number of investigations. That move came two days after the league sacked commissioner Lisa Baird.

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