National Women’s Soccer League commissioner Lisa Baird was forced out Friday, a day after a report by The Athletic revealed that a now-former coach had sexually coerced his players.
The Athletic was first to report Baird and general counsel Lisa Levine were ousted. The moves were confirmed to USA TODAY Sports by a person with knowledge of the situation who was granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The NWSL confirmed Baird’s departure late Friday, saying it had “received and accepted” Baird’s resignation.
The move came hours after the NWSL called off its games this weekend at the request of players.
“This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling,” Baird said in a statement announcing the pause.
“Recognizing that trauma, we have decided not to take the field this weekend to give everyone some space to reflect. Business as usual isn’t our concern right now. Our entire league has a great deal of healing to do, and our players deserve so much better. We have made this decision in collaboration with our players association and this pause will be the first step as we collectively work to transform the culture of this league, something that is long overdue.”
Also Friday, FIFA and U.S. Soccer both announced they were opening investigations into the allegations against Paul Riley. Riley was fired Thursday by the North Carolina Courage following The Athletic report that detailed patterns of sexual misconduct, harassment and coercion.
“U.S. Soccer played a major role in establishing the NWSL in 2013 and provided administrative support to the league until it became fully independent last year. U.S. Soccer continues to support the NWSL financially, and many of its senior National team players compete in the league today,” the federation said in a statement.
“We take seriously our responsibility to vigorously investigate the abhorrent behavior that has been reported and gain a full and frank understanding of the factors that allowed it to happen, and the changes that should be made to make sure it does not happen again. Our goals throughout this process will be transparency, cooperation and accountability.”
The NWSL has already turned Riley’s case over to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which investigates sexual misconduct cases in the Olympic movement. The Center issued a temporary suspension for Riley on Friday, citing allegations of misconduct.
U.S. Soccer had already stripped Riley of his coaching license. The temporary suspension from SafeSport prohibits Riley from “participating, in any capacity, in any program, activity, event or competition sponsored by, organized by, or under the auspices of” U.S. Soccer, or at any facility under its jurisdiction.
“A Temporary Suspension is only implemented in matters where the Center has sufficient evidentiary support,” according to SafeSport.
Former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim went on record with The Athletic detailing the trauma they experienced while playing under Riley on NWSL clubs including Western New York and the Portland Thorns.
Baird was heavily criticized after Alex Morgan tweeted screenshots of emails between Shim and Baird from April and May of this year, more than four months before the allegations became public.
Baird seemed to dismiss Shim’s concerns, telling her that, “We reviewed our files and I can confirm that the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion. Unfortunately, I cannot share any additional details.”
Riley was dismissed by the Thorns in 2015, and the team said Thursday it did so after an investigation into complaints about inappropriate behavior with players.
“While the findings did not show unlawful activity, they did uncover clear violations of our company policies. Based on this, we chose to sever ties with Riley,” the Thorns said Thursday. “The findings of the investigation were fully shared with the NWSL league office.”
Yet Riley was hired by the Courage in 2017. The team won the NWSL title in 2018 and 2019.
Damning as the allegations against Riley are, this is not the only case of toxic behavior the NWSL is facing.
The OL Reign confirmed Friday that it had asked for coach Farid Benstiti’s resignation after he made “comments regarding nutrition and fitness” to players. Lindsey Horan, a member of the U.S. team that won the World Cup in 2019 and the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, had spoken openly about being body shamed and told to lose weight when she played for Benstiti at PSG.
Earlier this week, the NWSL announced it had banned former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke following allegations he verbally and emotionally abused players. The NWSL also said the team’s owners would not be allowed to participate in league governance matters while a further investigation was done.