National Women's Soccer League players engaged in a show of solidarity as play resumed Wednesday night following allegations of sexual coercion and harassment against a former coach that have rocked the league.
Teams stopped play in the sixth minute in recognition of the six years it took for the allegations that former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly made against Paul Riley to come to light.
Players then linked arms while in a circle during all three NWSL games Wednesday night -- Gotham FC-Washington Spirit, North Carolina Courage-Racing Louisville and Houston Dash-Portland Thorns.
The demonstration was also in recognition of those players "who fought for too long to be heard," the players said in a statement on social media, which was accompanied by the hashtag #NoMoreSilence. The announcement asked fans to stand in silence in support of the players. "During that time, we ask that you stand in that pain and discomfort with us, as we consider what too many of us have been asked to sit with for too long."
The NWSL has been roiled in recent months by a series of firings and resignations related to sexual coercion, harassment and/or abusive behavior. Riley was fired by the NC Courage last week after allegations emerged that during his time with the Portland Thorns, he engaged in sexual coercion and harassment of Shim and Farrelly. As a result of an investigation initiated by the Thorns in 2015, Riley's contract wasn't renewed, though he was not prevented from later gaining employment with NWSL side Western NY Flash, which later became the NC Courage.
On Wednesday night, the Portland Thorns announced that general manager and president Gavin Wilkinson has been placed on administrative leave "pending the results of the outside independent investigation" in wake of the accusations against Riley. Wilkinson has not been suspended from his duties as general manager and president of the Portland Timbers, a source told ESPN.
The league resumed action Wednesday night after calling off last weekend's games in the wake of the allegations made against Riley, who was subsequently fired by the Courage. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird also resigned from her job.
Also Wednesday, the NWSLPA issued a set of demands as it related to the organization's independent investigation over what has taken place. They included:
- Every coach, General Manager, representative on the Board of Governors, and owner voluntarily submit to the Players Association's independent investigation into abusive conduct. They may notify Executive Director Meghann Burke of their agreement with this demand by the close of business on Wednesday, October 13, 2021.
- The scope of NWSL's investigation announced on Sunday evening, October 4, 2021, be expanded to include an investigation of each of the twelve NWSL Clubs represented on the Board of Governors to determine whether any abuse, whether presently known or unknown, has occurred at any point in time.
- The scope of NWSL's investigation further be expanded to determine whether any League Office staff, NWSL Club, or person in a position of power within NWSL neglected to investigate concerns of abuse raised by any player or employee at any point in time.
Earlier Wednesday, the owner of the Courage apologized for the franchise's "failure" to create an environment where players felt safe in coming forward.
Courage owner Steve Malik's statement in an open letter was the team's first public comment beyond the announcement of Riley's dismissal last Thursday. The allegations rocked the league and led to the resignation of NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird.
Malik said in his letter that the Courage "conducted due diligence" in retaining Riley and the coaching staff after Malik bought the team in 2017.
"We were made aware of an investigation into Mr. Riley's behavior in 2015 and were subsequently assured that he was in good standing," Malik wrote. "During his employment with the Courage, we had no knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment or coercion. When we learned of the horrific allegations in last week's reporting, we took those seriously and immediately terminated Mr. Riley."
Former NWSL players Farrelly and Shim came forward with the allegations of abuse, including sexual coercion, dating back more than a decade. The allegations were detailed last week in a story by The Athletic.
Riley has denied any inappropriate behavior.
Riley's firing was the latest in a string of recent controversies involving the NWSL, the top women's professional soccer league in the United States.
Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired last week for violations of the NWSL's anti-harassment policy detailed in the Washington Post.
OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti was asked to resign in July after inappropriate comments made during practice. Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired last month for reasons that have not been made public, and Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was dismissed for violating the league's anti-harassment policy. She has denied the allegations.
U.S. Soccer and FIFA have announced investigations into the league's handling of the Riley matter.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story.