FIFA’s judicial bodies on Friday launched an investigation into a sexual assault scandal involving a coach in the National Women’s Soccer League as games were called off this weekend.
On Thursday, the North Carolina Courage coach was fired over two former players’ claims of sexual assault against Paul Riley. FIFA told the Associated Press it was “deeply concerned” by the matter and would now seek further details from US football officials regarding the issues raised.
It is rare for world football’s governing bodies to intervene in a dispute involving a member federation.
FIFA said in a statement to the AP: “Due to the seriousness and gravity of the allegations being made by the players, we can confirm that FIFA’s judicial body is actively looking into the matter and has launched a preliminary investigation. ” “As part of this, FIFA will reach out to relevant parties, including US Soccer and the NWSL, to obtain further information regarding the various safety concerns and allegations of abuse.”
US Soccer suspended Riley’s coaching license after a report by The Athletic on Thursday in which former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim cited alleged abuse by English-born Riley.
Farrelly’s alleged harassment began in 2011 when she was a player with the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer League’s Philadelphia Independence.
She told the website that while Farrelly was with the Portland Thorns, the abuse continued. Former Thorns player Shim also reportedly experienced harassment. The Thorns said on Thursday that the team investigated the claims about Riley and sent him back to the league after he was sacked.
“When it comes to misconduct in football,” FIFA said, “we would like to reiterate that FIFA’s position is clear: anyone found guilty of misconduct and misconduct in football will be brought to justice, sanctioned and will be removed from the game.
“FIFA takes any allegation of abuse very seriously and will continue to cooperate closely with the relevant national and international authorities on any allegations or reports made in confidence to FIFA regarding abuse or misconduct in football.”
NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said the decision to call off games this weekend was made with the players’ union.
“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly painful for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. “I am so sorry for the pain,” said Baird, who returned to the NWSL in early 2020. Baird said, “Acknowledging that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual is not our concern right now. There’s a lot of healing to do in our entire league, and our players deserve much better.”
OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, who has been playing in the NWSL since its inception in 2013, suggested the league, and women’s games overall, are in the midst of a reckoning.
“I think female athletes in particular have gone through a lot over the years, not just women’s football,” Fishlock said. “I think everyone knows what happened with USA Gymnastics, and it’s something that’s been happening in the women’s sport over and over again for years and years and years. And we never talked about it again. And if we ever felt brave enough to talk about it, it would just drift down the rug, or we were told we were wrong… and I guess We’re at a point where we’re done just now.
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Riley told The Athletic that the allegations were “completely untrue”.
Riley was the head coach of Thornes in 2014 and 2015. After being let go by the Thornes, he became head coach of the Western New York Flash for one season before the team was sold and moved to North Carolina.
Riley was WPS Coach of the Year in 2011 and earned similar honors in the NWSL in 2017 and 2018. Courage won the NWSL Championship in 2018 and 2019.
The NWSL Players Association said on Friday that it requested that this weekend’s games be postponed. The union said it hoped fans would understand and support the decision.
“It’s okay to have space to process, to feel, and to take care of yourself,” Union said. “Actually, it’s more than okay, it’s a priority. That’s going to be our focus as players this weekend.”
The union has also demanded an independent inquiry into the allegations against Riley. The union sought to suspend any league or club employees who have been accused of violating the league’s anti-harassment policy or failing to report the misconduct, regardless of when it occurred.
The union demanded to know how Riley was hired by another club after allegations of misconduct surfaced while with Thornes.
The league did not immediately respond to those demands. The union is currently negotiating its first contract with the league.
In its ninth season, the NWSL has been rocked by several recent scandals involving team officials.
Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired following a report by The Washington Post following verbal and emotional abuse of players. The league formally sacked Burke and approved Spirit on Tuesday after an independent investigation.
Gotham FC general manager Alice Lahoo was fired in July following an investigation into the league’s anti-harassment policy. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Racing Louisville coach Christie Holly was fired in September but the reasons for her sacking were not made public.
OL Reign coach Fareed Benstiti abruptly resigned in July. On Friday, OL Governance chief executive and minority owner Bill Predmore said Benstity was asked to step down after an undisclosed incident during practice.
Benstiti was previously accused by US national team midfielder Lindsay Horan of sexist behavior during his time as coach of Paris Saint-Germain. Horan has said that Benstiti scolded him because of his weight.