‘I felt claimed’: Successful NWSL coach accused of years of sexual coercion across multiple teams

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Huon Fitzpatrick, Sports Editor

Patterns of sexual coercion. Inappropriate texts. Forcing players to kiss in order to avoid conditioning. Players across different teams who have been coached by National Women’s Soccer League coach Paul Riley had to endure these acts of sexual harassment.

Sinead Farrelly played for Paul Riley her entire professional career. She was drafted second overall by Riley’s Philadelphia Independence in the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer draft. Farrelly then followed Riley to a Long Island semi-pro team after the WPS folded and they eventually reunited on the Portland Thorns of the NWSL. When Farrelly arrived in Philadelphia for her rookie season, Riley made her “feel like [she] was really rare and special” by buying her drinks, telling her she was beautiful, and caring about the personal details of her life.

However, Riley was also harsh towards her. During her rookie season with Philadelphia, Farrelly was called up to the U.S. national team and when she returned to the Independence, Riley told her that she had been disloyal to the team and to him. Riley told Farrelly that she deserved to be on the national team but only if he was the coach, so when the national team called Farrelly a few weeks later, she turned them down, missing out on making the 2011 World Cup roster.

After losing in the WPS championship later that year, members of the Independence went out drinking to commemorate their season and to forget about their loss. According to Farrelly, Riley, who, at the time, was 47-years-old and married, – coerced her into his hotel room to have sex. The coercion continued when Farrelly followed Riley to Long Island where Farrelly says she and another teammate had sex with Riley after a night of heavy drinking. After every encounter, Farrelly tried to act like nothing had happened and she listened to Riley’s advice of taking what had happened “to their graves.”

After the season on Long Island, Farrelly joined FC Kansas City in the newly created NWSL but she could not outrun the mental and emotional toll that Riley had taken on her. Then, in December of 2013, Paul Riley became the head coach of the Portland Thorns, and Farrelly had a sinking feeling that Riley would trade for her.

While she was still in Philadelphia, Farrelly and her Independence teammates lost a heartbreaking championship game to the Western New York Flash and then went out drinking to end the night. On the bus to the pub, Farrelly had to sit on Riley’s lap due to the lack of space, an action that she knew was weird in the moment. Riley then grabbed Farrelly’s hips and she instantly knew that he had crossed a line.

“I felt claimed,” Farrelly said. “That word honestly describes it perfectly for me, because I have this feeling that he went around and he looked at his prospects, and he zeroed in on me. He claimed me; that’s what his touch felt like. I just remember thinking: Is anyone else seeing this?” Farrelly was young and at the early stages of her career so she “felt under [Riley’s] control.”

The party continued for hours in the hotel lobby but eventually, people went to bed, leaving Farrelly and Riley in front of Riley’s room. Farrelly felt as if Riley coerced her into having sex and she spent the night in his room. Farrelly tried to pretend that it never happened and she never wanted to talk about it again, but Riley continued to bring it up with her.

“That moment changed my whole life,” says Farrelly. “As a person and as a player, I was never the same.”

That fall, Farrelly went back to the University of Virginia to finish getting her degree but she could not shake the haunting feeling that Riley left her with. While she was in Virginia, Riley texted Farrelly saying that he was going to be in Charlottesville and they should have dinner to discuss her next contract. After dinner, the two had shots at the bar and then went back to Riley’s hotel room where Farrelly was coerced into having sex again. A few months later, Riley sent Farrelly a picture of himself in nothing but compression shorts. Farrelly didn’t respond.

When Riley invited Farrelly to play for his team on Long Island, she declined but was eventually convinced to go by her Independence teammates. After arriving in Long Island, Farrelly was never settled. During a mid-season break, she went out drinking every night by herself, behavior she called “reckless.” When she returned from the break, she drove herself to a training session but was unable to get out of the car.

“That was the first panic attack I ever had,” Farrelly said. “I remember looking up at the sky and wishing I didn’t exist, thinking, I can’t do this anymore. And then it looked like I was a sh***y teammate… when I would have done anything for my teammates.”

Although Farrelly knew that Riley’s behavior was inappropriate, she was convinced that making Riley happy was integral to her career. Farrelly felt Riley was the central figure in her confidence on the field and her livelihood as a player with his influence in the new league that was forming (the NWSL). Riley helped her land a roster spot with Kansas City and while Farrelly did enjoy certain parts of the season, she was still struggling, even if she tried to hide it. 

When she arrived in Portland, Farrelly was in the prime of her career and one of the better players on the Thorns. While Riley’s cloud hung over her head, Farrelly was playing high-level soccer for a good team in a city that she loved.. Then, in July 2014 in a game against the Chicago Red Stars, Farrelly collapsed on the field. She was able to walk off the field on her own and after a few tests, there was no indication of why she collapsed. Farrelly eventually returned to training and she attended every one of the Thorns’ games but she never played in one for the rest of the season. “I remember when I collapsed, it felt like a relief.” 

While many women across the sport experience the same treatment as Farrelly, they are encouraged to keep quiet because women’s soccer has repeatedly tried to gain traction in the U.S. and the NWSL is its third professional league. These women, a majority of whom make under $31,000 a year, feel that they are one mistake away from their career being over because of the treatment of coaches and staff across the league.

“There definitely has been this shared idea that because two leagues have folded in the past, the NWSL is kind of the last hope for a women’s soccer league,” says U.S national team star Alex Morgan. “Because of that, I feel like there’s this idea that we should be grateful for what we have and we shouldn’t raise important questions- or ask questions at all.”

Over the last year and a half, however, players and staff have started to speak out against wrongdoers, especially those in power. The owner of Utah Royals FC was forced to sell the team after racist comments and a sexist culture emerged. Utah’s coach was put on administrative leave for sexual comments and a Washington Spirit assistant coach left for a similar incident. Washington’s head coach was fired for verbal and emotional abuse of players and Gotham FC’s general manager was dismissed after an investigation into harassment claims. Along with these claims, there have been claims across the last 10 years from a number of players under Paul Riley about the culture that he created on his teams and the inappropriate behavior that he had towards many players. These claims led to the North Carolina Courage firing Riley, 5 years after he was let go by the Thorns for a claim made by Mana Shim for actions similar to Farrelly’s abuse.

Amid these allegations, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down after Alex Morgan revealed (with permission from Farrelly and Shim who told her about the abuse) emails where Baird failed to reinvestigate Riley’s time with the Thorns after a complaint made by Shim in 2015 that led to the Thorns letting Riley go.

Current Portland Thorn Meghan Klingenburg spoke out on Twitter about the NWSL’s handling of abuse allegations. “I am so f***ing tired of this bu******,” Klingenburg wrote. “As a veteran player, I demand the NWSL, the owners and GMs keep players safe. On the field, in the locker room and on the road. It’s not ok to just let an organizational member resign and sweep things under the rug. What happens to the next set of players that play under that coach?”

U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, the Portland Thorns coach before Paul Riley, wrote in an open letter to fans about how she is “heartbroken” by the “abhorrent conduct” reported by players across the league. In her letter, Parlow Cone said, “like all of you, I am saddened and angered by these reports. As a former player and a current youth soccer coach, there is no responsibility that I take more seriously than ensuring soccer players in this country are safe and respected both on and off the field. I cannot overstate how heartbroken I am for anyone who has ever been a victim of abusive behavior or sexual misconduct in our sport.”

While the investigations are still ongoing, Morgan, Shim, and Farrelly have talked to NWSL officials and have implemented an 8-page anti-harassment policy for the league that they hope will lead to the treatment and justice that every woman in soccer deserves.

Photo credit: Rich Barnes/Getty Images: AP Photo/Karl B Deblake

Sources:

  1. ‘This guy has a pattern’: Amid institutional failure, former NWSL players accuse prominent coach of sexual coercion
  2. NWSL abuse allegations: US Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone ‘heartbroken’
  3. National Women’s Soccer League in turmoil over ‘abuse’ (picture)