NWSL fans, players call for systematic change
In the days since the National Women's Soccer League was rocked by reports from The Athletic detailing disgusting behavior, including alleged sexual coercion of players by former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley, heartfelt support has poured forth for the brave players — especially former Thorns Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim — who have spoken out about the abuse they suffered in pursuit of their soccer dreams.
Support for players has been expressed on social media and at Providence Park, where the Rose City Riveters and the Timbers Army expressed themselves through signs calling for systematic change and through a boycott of team merchandise and concession stands.
Thorns' players issued their demands shortly before their Oct. 6 home match with the Houston Dash. The first of those was that Gavin Wilkinson be placed on leave until an independent investigation is complete, which the GM was that evening. The players also want a seat at the table and better transparency between the front office and Thorns' players, and they want player safety to be priority one around the NWSL.
All of the players' requests make sense. Anyone who reads the reports by Meg Linehan and Steph Yang of The Athletic that detail how Riley exploited players on several teams, including Farrelly and Shim while serving as coach of the Thorns from late 2013 until late 2015, understands that business as usual is not an option if the NWSL is to survive, much less thrive.
Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg noted that abusive behavior by men in power predates the NWSL, referring to similar behavior in Women's Pro Soccer, the league that came and went before the NWSL. Klingenberg said the responsibility for making a women's soccer league a financial success cannot come at the expense of player safety. In a recent story by Yang in The Athletic, Klingenberg said:
"We've been conditioned to think that this league could fold at any time and we have to make sacrifices to make this league work. And when you think that, and you think your dreams are going to go away, you do almost anything that your coach says or your manager wants and you'll accept whatever contract you're given. And you will accept whatever standards are happening around the league. Because if I say something, what if the league goes away? And I think we need to rewrite that. We need to unlearn that."
Here are a few reactions to reports of NWSL coaches abusing their positions:
From Thorns coach Mark Parsons: "It's absolutely heartbreaking and horrific. You sign up to be a coach and the first thing on the list is to be able to protect people: health and safety and well-being of people — players — but also as a head coach you're responsible for staff. It's the first commitment you make, and it's the simplest one to keep. I'm so sorry and sad that hasn't been met, and players have suffered.
"It's really tough to think about how we got here. And we have to be honest in reflection and learning, but we have to make sure … everyone in any position of leadership has to work to make sure that players are safe, that we have relentless policies and protocols in place to make sure that who we're giving this honor and special privilege of being around some of the best professionals, the best leaders, the best women, are the right people. We absolutely failed there."
From Klingenberg, who always speaks from her heart: "The one thing that keeps coming back to me is that without any say in the league, without any power, and without the financial resources to protect ourselves, then this will continue happening. To me, there needs to be big structural changes within the league to protect players, because we're vulnerable without a voice, we're vulnerable without financial means to protect ourselves, and that is something that cannot continue."
And from fan Laura Gray, explaining the boycott of concessions and merchandise to colleague Dillon Mullan: "To create change you have to hit people in their wallet. For a woman to step up and say something and not be taken seriously is unacceptable. We need change at the top."
Time will tell what that change looks like. Thorns defender Emily Menges said she is optimistic that meaningful change will come from all the pain because of the multiple investigations and because so many eyes, including those of supporters like the Rose City Riveters, are watching the response of the league and its clubs.
"Our conversations (within the Thorns organization) have been very promising," Menges said. "I'm optimistic that this is such a reckoning, and so there's no way that this doesn't change across the league."
In Portland, Wilkinson's status will be closely watched. In purely soccer terms, his leave comes at an inopportune moment for the club. He has been leading the search for the Thorns' next head coach, a process that will likely be delayed as these investigations unfold. Since the expansion draft that will help build the rosters of Angel City FC and San Diego is less than two months away (only nine players, including one U.S. Women's National Team player, can be protected), a lack of direction at the top of the club is a challenge from a soccer perspective.
Those tasks, though, are insignificant compared with constructing a framework of trust between the NWSL owners/employers and the NWSL Players Association (in the process of negotiating its first collective bargaining agreement with the league). Only if such a framework is built can fans, players and sponsors (who have, so far, pledged continued financial support for the league) be comfortable investing time, effort and money in this enterprise.
Thorns update — After a Sunday, Oct. 10, scoreless draw at Kansas City, the Thorns remain atop the standings entering a Wednesday, Oct. 13, home match against rival OL Reign. That 7:30 p.m. clash at Providence Park was originally set to be played on Oct. 2, before the league paused that weekend in the wake of the Riley scandal. Portland concludes a stretch of four games in 12 days by visiting Houston at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 17.
Timbers update —Â After a weekend off, Portland visits the LA Galaxy at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 16, kicking off a stretch of four games in 12 days. Unbeaten in eight straight games (7-0-1), the Timbers sit fourth in the MLS Western Conference with six games remaining. They are home Wednesday, Oct. 20 against Vancouver, at Colorado Saturday, Oct. 23, and home against San Jose on Wednesday, Oct. 27.
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