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Former Thorns coach Paul Riley accused of sexual coercion

Thorns acknowledge that accusations of misconduct by former players were part of why Riley was not retained, although they did not make that news public at the time.

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SOCCER: JUN 19 NWSL - FC Kansas City at Portland Thorns FC Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Athletic’s Meg Linehan reported on Thursday that former Portland Thorns’ head coach Paul Riley allegedly sexually coerced former players and mistreated countless players in a variety of other ways. Among the named sources in Linehan’s story are former Thorns Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, who bravely shared their personal experiences with Riley. They said Riley’s abuse of power has been spread across the league and multiple teams since 2010. As a result of the accusations, Riley was terminated by the North Carolina Courage and had his USSF coaching license suspended on Thursday.

Farrelly told The Athletic that Riley gave her special attention, would pick up her bar tab and would make inappropriate comments about players’ personal lives, weight and sexual orientation. Riley allegedly sexually coerced Farrelly on multiple occasions prior to their time with the Thorns.

Riley’s inappropriate behavior allegedly continued during his time as head coach of the Thorns. One such incident allegedly occurred after a draw against Washington at Providence Park in 2015 when the majority of the team went to a nearby bar, The River Pig Saloon. As the night wore on, players trickled out of the bar, and eventually, Riley, assistant coach Skip Thorp, Shim and Farrelly were the only members of the team left at the bar.

The group left the bar, and Shim searched for a restroom. Riley said she could use the restroom in his apartment. All four of them went to Riley’s apartment, and Thorp quickly left. Riley asked the two women if they ever hooked up on away trips, to which the players responded that they had not. Shim recounted that Riley asked her and Farrelly to kiss and, if they did, the team wouldn’t have to run a suicide mile at practice — an exercise the team hated.

The players kissed briefly and agreed to never tell anyone. They left, and the team did not have to run the suicide mile.

The Athletic reached out to Riley with a list of 23 emailed questions. Riley responded, saying that the most egregious allegations were “completely untrue,” but allowing that “there’s a chance I’ve said something along the way that offended someone,” and that “I do not belittle my players, comment on their weight, or discuss their personal relationships.”

Another incident detailed in The Athletic story was an allegation by Shim that Thorns’ general manager Gavin Wilkinson called her into his office and instructed her to not be so vocal about off-field matters. Shim had come out publicly prior to the 2013 NWSL Championship and discussed her anxiety surrounding the 2014 expansion draft. After being picked in the expansion draft, Shim had recently been re-acquired by the Thorns, apparently at the urging of Riley.

On Wednesday, Wilkinson responded to The Athletic, saying that this was “bullshit” and that his behavior over the past 10 years with the Thorns and Timbers speaks for itself.

The team added, “Gavin categorically never communicated to Mana, or any Thorns or Timbers player for that matter, to not discuss political or personal views.”

Wilkinson shared a message with Linehan following her report this morning, which can be read below:

In addition to the kissing incident, Shim said Riley had sent her inappropriate texts. Shim confided in then Thorns teammate Alex Morgan, who tried to help her get in contact with people at the club who could address Riley’s misconduct.

“I tried everything to find an HR contact, a way through the league to anonymously report an incident, any sort of contact that would not be traced back to her because it would potentially jeopardize her job to report this sort of incident,” Morgan told The Athletic.

Shim and her partner eventually compiled a list of all of Riley’s major incidents and sent an email on Sept. 16, 2015, to Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, Wilkinson, HR director Nancy Garcia Ford, and Riley. She also forwarded the email to Jeff Plush, the NWSL commissioner at the time.

Shim then met with Garcia Ford, who said that no legal claim could be made because of the lack of evidence. Shim had deleted the texts from her phone because she was encouraged to do so by Riley and because she didn’t want her partner to find the messages.

Farrelly was also interviewed by Garcia Ford. Farrelly didn’t reveal all of her past experiences with Riley but did confirm that Riley asked the two players to kiss and that Shim had received inappropriate photos from Riley.

Morgan said no one from the league contacted her, even though she was listed in Shim’s complaint as someone who had knowledge of the situation.

On Sept. 23, 2015, the Thorns announced Riley would not be retained for a third season. The Thorns had finished in sixth place and missed the playoffs for the first time. Riley stated that he wanted to return to Long Island, New York, where he had set down roots.

Paulson said the club informed the league of the probe’s findings from the investigations into Riley’s alleged misconduct. None of this was mentioned in public statements following Riley’s departure.

“Immediately when we became aware of these allegations at the end of our 2015 season, Paul Riley was placed on administrative leave and a thorough investigation advised by outside counsel was conducted, working closely with the NWSL league office,” the team said in a statement to The Athletic on Wednesday. “The investigation found no unlawful activity, but that Mr. Riley had violated our policies. As a result, we chose not to renew his contract. The findings of the investigation were shared with the NWSL league office.”

Paulson acknowledged Wednesday that the findings of the investigation factored into the team’s decision to not retain Riley. In the Thorns’ press release announcing Riley’s departure from the club, however, Wilkinson wrote, “On behalf of Thorns FC, I would like to thank Paul for his services to the club these past two seasons.”

Farrelly eventually told Shim about her experiences with Riley across multiple clubs, and they started a group message with Morgan to figure out how they could stop Riley’s abuse of players.

Morgan went through the NWSL player handbook and realized there were no policies to protect the players from this kind of abuse.

“I asked for a player handbook last year,” Morgan said. “It was an eight-page document, and I asked specifically to see the protections of the player in it. There’s absolutely none. There’s nothing that protects the player. There’s something about social media, there’s something about protecting the league, protecting each club, nothing about player protection. I was shocked, but at the same time, if we don’t absolutely claw and fight for ourselves, we’ve seen that we’re not going to get anything.”

Morgan and 240 players signed a letter to current NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird and “asked for nine specific elements to ensure safe and inclusive workplaces, including multiple avenues to submit complaints and assurances that the league would protect any player from retaliation,” according to Linehan.

About a month after receiving that letter, the NWSL’s Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment was drafted, and it was announced on April 13.

Meg Linehan outlines the entire situation in devastating detail here. Make sure to read the full report.

The NWSL Players’ Association and many players went to Twitter to release statements in light of Linehan’s harrowing report.

The PA is demanding the following:

  1. NWSL initiate an independent investigation into the allegations published by The Athletic this morning pursuant to the Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment by 12:00 p.m. EST on Friday, October 1, 2021.
  2. Any League or Club Staff who are accused of conduct, no matter when it occurred, that violates the current Anti-Harassment Policy for a Safe Work Environment or any mandated reporter who failed to report the alleged violation be suspended immediately, pending the results of the above referenced investigation, and in any event no later than 12:00 p.m. EST on Friday, October 1, 2021.
  3. NWSL disclose how Paul Riley was hired within the NWSL after departing from another NWSL Club subsequent to an investigation into abusive conduct during the bargaining session scheduled for Friday, October 1, 2021.

At 12:04 p.m. PST, the Portland Thorns released this statement and later postponed Mark Parsons’ media availability, which was originally scheduled for 1:15 p.m.

At 12:20 p.m., the NWSL released a statement that included the news that Riley had been fired from the Courage, effective immediately.

The Athletic’s reporting has again detailed the institutional issues throughout the NWSL and its clubs that have allowed for these types of abuses of power and mistreatment of players to not only go unpunished, but to be perpetuated throughout the league’s history.

It is time the league and its clubs go through an institutional overhaul to rid the league of abusers of power and those who have helped perpetuate and harbor this culture in the league. The NWSL needs to protect its players.