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US women’s soccer league calls off matches after sexual misconduct allegations

Lisa Baird, who was under fire for her handling of sexual misconduct allegations against a head coach, resigned Friday night as commissioner of the top US professional women’s soccer league. 

Baird’s decision was announced in a statement posted on the National Women’s Soccer League’s Twitter account and comes just hours after she said the NWSL was calling off this weekend’s matches around the United States.

“The National Women’s Soccer League on Friday has received and accepted Lisa Baird’s resignation as its commissioner,” the league said.

The decision to remove Baird was made by the league’s board of directors, American sports broadcaster ESPN reported. No replacement has been announced.

Baird’s resignation comes a day after the North Carolina Courage fired head coach Paul Riley for what the team called “very serious allegations of misconduct.”

“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played,” Baird said earlier Friday before she resigned.

“I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling,” she added in a statement. “Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect.”

Baird was named NWSL commissioner in February 2020, succeeding Amanda Duffy. 

Riley’s dismissal came after The Athletic website detailed wide-ranging sexual misconduct by the 58-year-old Englishman spanning multiple teams and leagues since 2010.

Riley was the second NWSL coach to be dismissed this week after the league terminated Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke’s contract following an investigation into allegations of verbal and emotional abuse.

US internationals Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe were among the players who have criticized the league’s handling of the Riley allegations.

“Bottom line: Protect your players. Do the right thing NWSL,” Morgan tweeted.

“Men, protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN,” Rapinoe tweeted. “Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll.”

‘A pattern’

According to The Athletic, players Sinead Farrelly and Meleana “Mana” Shim had made allegations of inappropriate behaviour against Riley.

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

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

In another incident during his reign at the Portland Thorns, Farrelly and Shim said Riley had forced them to kiss each other while at his apartment.

“This guy has a pattern,” Shim told The Athletic.

Morgan, who played under Riley at the same time, confirmed the players’ allegations and said she had tried to help them file a report with the league.

“The league was informed of these allegations multiple times and refused multiple times to investigate,” Morgan said. “The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse.”

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 said.

The league’s players’ union NWSLPA said on Twitter that “systemic abuse” was “plaguing the NWSL.”

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

On Thursday Baird said the league was implementing a new anonymous reporting process for players, and team and league staff.

FIFA announced it had reached out to both the NWSL and US Soccer as part of a “preliminary investigation” it was conducting.

“FIFA is deeply concerned by the recent reports in the US made by several players. Due to the severity and seriousness of the allegations being made by players, we can confirm that FIFA’s judicial bodies are actively looking into the matter,” the world soccer body said.

“FIFA’s position is clear: anyone found guilty of misconduct and abuse in football shall be brought to justice, sanctioned and removed from the game.”

US Soccer, which helped found the NWSL in 2013, said it was launching its own investigation.

“We take seriously our responsibility to vigorously investigate the abhorrent behavior that has been reported and gain a full and frank understanding of the factors that allowed it to happen, and the changes that should be made to make sure it does not happen again,” the league said.

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