By the time hundreds of professional women’s soccer players gathered on a videoconference Thursday night, they had all had enough.
One head coach in their league had been fired that morning, accused of coercing a player on his team into sex and of bullying others. His dismissal came two days after the coach of another team was fired for what one player described as threats and personal insults. Many of the women on the call, arranged by the union for athletes in the National Women’s Soccer League, had their own painful stories to share.
For two hours they discussed what to do next, and their decision came close to midnight: The players’ union would ask the league to cancel the five games scheduled for this weekend so that the athletes could have “space to process this pain,” the union said in a statement.
No one was certain what would happen if the league declined.
By Friday morning, only hours after the players ended their call, the league acceded to their request to cancel the games. And as the day wore on, many within women’s soccer believed it was only a matter of time before Lisa Baird, the league’s commissioner, would resign or be fired.
Now the league that is home to some of the United States’ most famous athletes — World Cup winners like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd — is being held to account by those women, as well as by the majority who have annual contracts of $31,000 or less. The players say the league should be doing more to protect them from abuse, and — in a criticism aimed directly at the league’s commissioner — that their concerns must not be swept aside.
This public fury, from players growing more comfortable with sharing their stories of abuse at work, underscored a power dynamic in women’s sports: Employment tends to be less stable than in men’s leagues, and executive decisions are largely in the hands of men who own, operate and coach the teams.
Still, nobody knows how much the crisis will deepen or what the league will look like when players return to the field.
The National Women’s Soccer League has become by far the most successful professional soccer league for women in the United States. Both the Women’s United Soccer Association and Women’s Professional Soccer lasted just three seasons earlier in the 2000s, unable to find financial stability.
The N.W.S.L. has seen its share of turmoil — two of the founding teams no longer exist, and others have relocated — but it has reached a ninth season and some other real landmarks. The league is negotiating its first collective bargaining agreement with players, it has a national television agreement with CBS, and it no longer receives much of its funding and administrative support from the United States Soccer Federation, the sport’s national governing body.
But, as has become evident this week, bullying and abusive behavior have been a part of the league from its earliest days.
On Thursday, The Athletic reported accusations that Paul Riley, who coached the North Carolina Courage to league championships in 2018 and 2019, had coerced a player into having sex with him, forced two players to kiss and then sent them unsolicited sexual pictures, and yelled at and belittled players.
The Athletic also reported that Riley lost his head coaching job with the Portland Thorns in 2015 partly because of violations of team policy, but the league allowed another team to hire Riley soon after, and the violations were never publicly revealed.
On Tuesday, the league announced that Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke — who, according to a Washington Post report in August, would “unleash a torrent of threats, criticism and personal insults” on players — was fired and no longer allowed to work in the N.W.S.L.
In late August, Christy Holly, the head coach of Racing Louisville, was fired for cause, according to the league, and a local television station reported that players had complained about a “toxic environment.” And Farid Benstiti, the head coach of the O.L. Reign in the Seattle area, resigned in July, and the team’s chief executive acknowledged on Friday that he had asked Benstiti to step down after a player told the executive about inappropriate comments from the coach.
Those departures, over the past three months, involved 40 percent of the league’s head coaches; when the season began, men occupied eight of the 10 head coaching positions.
During the conference call on Thursday, the players did not refuse to play in this weekend’s games, but they made it clear that they wanted substantial changes.
Baird, the commissioner, has been the focus of much of the criticism. In April, Sinead Farrelly, a former N.W.S.L. player, wrote an email to Baird, saying that she had “experienced firsthand extremely inappropriate conduct” by Riley and that concerns Farrelly raised during a 2015 investigation into Riley by the Thorns had not been thoroughly investigated.
Baird responded that the N.W.S.L. took player safety seriously, but that “the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion.”
The emails were posted publicly to Twitter on Thursday by Morgan, a star player for the Orlando Pride and one of the most well-known members of the women’s national team. “The league must accept responsibility for a process that failed to protect its own players from this abuse,” she wrote.
In the announcement canceling the games, Baird offered her own apology for the first time. “This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff,” she said, “and I take full responsibility for the role I have played.”
If the players had tried to engage in collective action to force change, the effort would have been complicated by the N.W.S.L.’s unusual structure. Members of the women’s national team who play in the league are paid not by their individual clubs, but by the United States Soccer Federation, and are therefore subject to a collective bargaining agreement signed with the federation. According to that agreement, players may not engage in strikes or work stoppages. The clause also pertains to their employment in the N.W.S.L.
In doing so, they have gained the attention of U.S. Soccer and FIFA, the international governing body, both of which said late Friday that they were initiating investigations into the issues raised by the news media reports.
The fallout for Riley, who denied most of the allegations to The Athletic and did not respond to messages from The New York Times seeking comment, has been swift. He was fired on Thursday by the Courage, and on Friday he was temporarily suspended by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit organization established by the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to protect athletes from sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
Tallying the full effects of the crisis on the league will take much longer, a point made clear in the players’ statement about the cancellation of this weekend’s games. Even as they pressed for the shutdown in a moment of crisis, the players acknowledged the implications and inconveniences for their fans.
“We know that many of our fans made travel plans, scheduled the night off, or juggled commitments to attend our games and that this decision impacts you, too,” the players’ union said.
They know the league will continue to thrive only if the shutdown does not alienate fans.