More than just one bad coach: the systemic nature of abuse in professional soccer

Trigger warning: this story contains discussion of emotional and sexual abuse and body shaming.

On Sept. 30, 2021, sports news source The Athletic published a bombshell report by Meg Linehan detailing the sexual coercion, abuse of power, and inappropriate conduct of former coach Paul Riley. Riley was a successful and well-respected coach in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), having most recently led the North Carolina Courage to two championships. The article predominantly shares the stories of former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim but also includes testimony from players speaking anonymously. 

From the outside, it may seem like this breaking news about Paul Riley is an isolated incident. He is one man, and he was promptly fired. However, to those who follow the NWSL, it is clear that this is not an isolated incident but rather a systemic failure on the part of the NWSL, and sports culture as a whole, to protect athletes from abuse.

Paul Riley was hired as head coach of the Portland Thorns in 2013. While there, he singled out midfielder Mana Shim, continually breaking down boundaries between professional and personal by asking her to coffee or dinner and requesting she come to his hotel room, opening the door in his underwear, all under the guise of working on the game. He also took players out drinking. On one occasion, he took Shim and Farrelly to his apartment so that Shim could use the bathroom, then pressured the two women to kiss while he watched. After the 2015 season, Shim detailed Riley’s behavior in an email to Thorns management. The Thorns launched an investigation and subsequently didn’t renew Riley’s contract for 2016. Despite the Thorns sharing the investigation’s results with the league, five months after leaving Portland, Riley was hired as the head coach of  the Western New York Flash—same league, same role, just a new team on a different coast.

In 2012, Farid Benstiti became the head coach of Paris Saint-Germain Féminine (PSG). That same year, 18-year-old Lindsey Horan signed with PSG. Horan left PSG in 2016, and in 2019 began to speak publicly about her time there—more specifically about the body shaming she endured from Benstiti. Despite these allegations, Benstiti was hired as the head coach of OL Reign, Seattle’s NWSL club, in Jan. 2020. Bill Predmore, CEO of the club, acknowledged that he was aware of Horan’s comments, but felt Benstiti was right for the job. In July 2021, Benstiti resigned from his position as head coach. No reason was given, but fans assumed the resignation was due to the team’s unimpressive results. Predmore spoke highly of Benstiti, wishing him the best. Finally, three months later, Predmore clarified that Benstiti had actually been suspended and resigned after a player filed a complaint about Benstiti’s disparaging comments surrounding players’ nutrition and fitness.

In Jan. 2019, Richie Burke was hired as head coach of the Washington Spirit. Subsequently, in Feb. 2019, parents of a former youth player at FC Virginia spoke out about Burke’s emotional abuse of players and use of homophobic language. The Spirit responded, saying that “FC Virginia investigated the matter and determined no action was necessary.”

A month later, another former player shared that Burke verbally abused players and used the f-slur. Over two years later, on Aug. 10 2021, the Spirit announced that Burke had stepped down as head coach due to health concerns, and would move to the front office. The next day, The Washington Post published an article by Molly Hensley-Clancy about Spirit player Kaiya McCullough, who suffered verbal and emotional abuse, including constant criticism, insults, and racially insensitive comments, while playing for Burke. Two players also spoke anonymously about facing similar abuse from Burke. After the report was published, Burke was suspended, and was finally terminated for cause on Sept. 28, 2021.

These are only three stories detailing the abuse and harassment that players have faced in the NWSL, but they are revealing nonetheless. These stories unveil the way in which the NWSL has failed to remove abusive coaches from the league, and team owners and managers have ignored the warning signs, opting to give coaches the benefit of the doubt regarding their past transgressions, compromising player safety in the process. Even when acting to remove coaches, managers have prioritized protecting coaches’ reputations, giving predatory and abusive coaches the opportunity to be rehired, endangering more players. At this point, the systemic failure of the NWSL to protect players is clear, and great change is needed in order to make sure that this league is a safe and healthy environment for players. The NWSL is home to some of the best soccer players in the world, and they deserve to play in a league and for teams that treat them as such.


The online edition of this story includes links to the external reporting mentioned.


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