It was an emotional night of protest and solidarity in Cary, North Carolina on Wednesday.
Racing Louisville faced the North Carolina Courage and lost 1-3. This was their first game back after the NWSL postponed all matches last weekend as stories of abuse and cover-ups shook the league to its core. Still, nothing in the actual gameplay seemed to matter compared to the tumult swirling around the league.
In the sixth minute, play stopped as and every player on both teams – including bench players and those who didn’t dress due to injury – met in the center circle and stood silently arm in arm. This act of solidarity organized by the NWSL Player’s Association was repeated across all three league games on Wednesday. The sixth minute was chosen to represent the six years former players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly suffered in silence before being heard. Shim and Farrelly shared their stories of sexual coercion and abuse at the hands of now-former Courage Coach Paul Riley last Thursday in the Athletic.
— NWSLPA (@nwsl_players) October 6, 2021
As a result of these bombshell accusations, Riley was immediately terminated. NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird and league General Counsel have also resigned after it was revealed they failed to act when presented with evidence of Riley’s abuse. All of this took place in just the past seven days.
The horrific allegations against Riley are just the latest incidents that have shaken the league this season. Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke was fired after players, including Kaiya McCullough, revealed to the Washington Post that he was emotionally abusive. The fallout of the Spirit’s handling of Burke’s firing has lead to players demanding managing owner Steven Baldwin sell the team immediately. Elsewhere, NJ/NY Gotham fired General Manager Alyse LaHue for violating the league’s anti-harassment policy, although details have not been publicly revealed. Portland’s leadership is also facing demands from fans and players alike concerning their role in covering up Riley’s behavior and allowing him to move onto other teams in the league. And, of course, Racing Louisville fired coach Christy Holly ‘for cause’ just a little over a month ago.
While fans across the league – and some players – have been demanding more transparency in why Holly was fired by Racing, players Michelle Betos and Savannah McCaskill say the details haven’t been shared in order to protect those involved.
When asked directly about the nature of the incident that lead to Holly’s firing, Betos responded, “That’s not something that we’re willing to talk about.”
She continued: “I know the league, the entire world is looking for transparency from our club, and I think that will come in time. I think you guys should have trust in that. But right now, from a player perspective, I will tell you that no matter what it looks like to the outside, they are protecting the players. Our movement is to protect the players and it may not make sense right now, but I think it will soon.
“But regardless, they are protecting the players, and we stand behind our club.”
When asked about their feelings on Racing’s handling of Holly’s termination, both Betos and Savannah McCaskill said they were “absolutely” supportive of how the front office responded and has continued to support players.
“As soon as it was made aware of any wrongdoing, he was fired immediately and we were taken into account,” said McCaskill. “They wanted to protect us from the get-go. Everything they’ve done since then has been to protect us, to make sure that we’re safe.
“We have a safe working environment. Anything that we need we’re given, whether it be counseling, you know, just support. Just a sense of: ‘We’re here to support you guys.’ ‘We’re here for whatever you guys need.’
“And I think we’ve felt that from upper management since day one, really. They’ve really provided us with a platform to really drive and given us anything that we could possibly need to perform from a facilities standpoint, nutrition – anything that you could ever think of we pretty much have at Racing.
“We have full support in the club.”
“This Can’t Keep Going On”
Just because Betos and McCaskill feel Racing handled the Holly firing and aftermath well doesn’t mean they feel the club is fully off the hook. The NWSL Player’s Association is demanding all teams – including the incoming Los Angeles and San Diego expansions for 2022 – be fully investigated. Betos and Racing’s players support this demand.
— NWSLPA (@nwsl_players) October 6, 2021
“Through those investigations, clubs that feel good about themselves should present themselves forward and be open to the investigation,” said Betos. “I think we want clubs to be willing to do that and get rid of anything that’s been an issue and then we move forward.”
McCaskill concurs: “Everyone should be investigated at this point. It should not be that one club’s investigated and another one’s not. It should be a league-wide investigation of everyone.
“If clubs come out squeaky clean, then that’s amazing and that’s good on them. They’re doing things the right way. But the people who’ve been involved in what’s going on should 100% be out. That’s where we stand and I think that’s why we’re taking such a fierce stand right now is that this can’t keep going on.”
McCaskill pointed out that abuse and misbehavior has been rampant in women’s soccer since even before the NWSL existed. These behaviors shouldn’t be acceptable in any workplace and definitely not in this league.
Still, as awful as things are, that doesn’t mean the players are without hope.
“Right now it feels like we’ve hit rock bottom and the only way to go is up,” said Betos. “Honestly, for the first time – in the way we’ve come together, in the demands we’re making, hopefully, clubs are participating, the new bargaining committee, the new executive committee, the new people involved – this is the first time in a very long time I’ve had hope for women’s soccer. And I believe that we’ve hit bottom but we go up from here.”
“The Support Means Everything”
The goal of the NWSLPA’s protest in the sixth minute of last nights’ match was to force a moment of reflection. Originally, the protest was going to last a full six minutes so viewers could feel the weight and discomfort as those long minutes ticked by and then reflect on how the six long years Shim and Farrelly endured must have felt.
According to Betos, the reason it was shortened to only one minute is because the full six minutes was simply too much for players to bear.
“You may not see it, because this is a league of strong, strong women, but people are hurting,” she said. “I had so much respect standing in that circle looking at those North Carolina girls knowing what they were going through. You could see their eyes well up, even for that time period.
“This goes way back. Some of us played for [Riley] in Portland. I played for him in club growing up. There’s a bunch of his club girls here. This is something that has affected a lot of the soccer world. And I think that minute for us was really hard, but I think the testament to the strength of this entire league is that we are playing through this right now, and playing at a high level.”
If the players are asking us to reflect on the pain and suffering they’ve endured, it’s only fair that we, as fans and content creators, do that fully. Over the past week, I’ve seen many fans question what they can do to support the players while also demanding systemic change in the league. Some have questioned whether or not they should even attend games. On that, Betos was adamant.
“We still want you at games,” said Betos. “We want you there because the support means everything to us.”
Betos also emphasized that supporters have more power to push and demand chance than they might realize.
“At the end of the day, your support means everything to the ownership of the teams across the league and I think your voices are stronger than you realize.”
“Your support means the world to us,” said McCaskill. “Whether that be supporting us at games or from afar, just simply revoicing our messages, I think that’s also huge. It puts pressure on clubs to realize that, oh, we also have the entire fanbase amplifying what the players are saying and backing them. That’s huge because they rely on the fans so much just as we do. They wouldn’t have a job unless we have fans.”
Betos and McCaskill are absolutely right. Supporters, content creators, even casual fans all play a role in this league’s ecosystem. It’s our time and money that sustains these clubs and, ultimately, the league as a whole. As content creators, our writing, podcasts, other outputs give free PR to the teams we love.
We may feel like our voices don’t matter or won’t be heard, but that’s just brushing off accountability. We do have voices and we do matter, so it’s important we use them. We need to amplify the players’ voices, support their demands, and insist on transparency whenever possible.
We Must Do Better
My biggest fear is that Racing’s leadership feels that they’ve solved their problem and their work is done. Holly is gone, the players are well-supported, crisis averted. Racing handled this incident very well according to their players and continue to protect those who were involved in spite of how it looks to the outside world. These are very good things and should be praised, but they’re also just the first step. Accountability is more than taking action to correct a single problem, it’s also the longer, harder process of making sure it doesn’t happen again.
As I’ve discussed before, the hiring and rehiring of abusive coaches is at the heart of many of the league’s issues. It was an issue with Burke, it was an issue with Riley, it was an issue with Craig Harrington from Utah, and Farid Benstiti in Seattle. I have no doubt Holly came to Racing highly recommended by other powerful leaders in women’s soccer. But that’s the problem. Men in power are clearly protecting their friends at the expense of player safety. After all, what do owners, managers, and other leaders have to worry about if an abuser enters their club? Some embarrassment and a loss of income? They’re not the ones who are going to be preyed on or abused.
One way Racing can avoid another mistake like Holly would be to hire more diverse candidates – not just as coaches, but across all positions. Racing’s upper leadership is almost exclusively men. Most of the assistant coaches, the Executive Vice President of Development, James O’Connor, and club President Brad Estes are all men. A woman in a position of power with deeper ties to women’s soccer either through the NWSL or past leagues would go a long way in helping to communicate and understand players’ needs and experiences. Women’s soccer culture is very different from men’s soccer . This is a complete blindspot in Racing’s upper management as no one has any previous women’s soccer experience.
And just hiring more women isn’t enough. Many women, like former commissioner Lisa Baird, are clearly more interested in upholding the status quo than in protecting players. Female coaches like Corrine Diacre have been accused of fostering a toxic culture to the point some stars have refused to play for her ever again. It needs to be amplified that many of the recent accusations aren’t just misogynistic or sexualized, they’re also homophobic and racist. Riley harassed players for being in relationships with women. Burke used racist language and told racially insensitive jokes that disturbed players. There needs to be wider representation across all levels of the club in order to assure diversity in experiences and viewpoints that can help safeguard a team from becoming a self-protective monolith.
It’s heartening to hear that Betos and McCaskill say Racing’s players feel safe and protected in the aftermath of the Holly firing. It’s a relief to know they feel the incident was handled well and that they are choosing to remain silent and not being silenced. It’s good to have it reiterated again that the players feel they’re given everything they need to be professionals. All these things make me proud as a supporter of Racing Louisville and I applaud the club for its efforts.
As a Racing supporter, I want to believe the best about my club. Through my writing, I’ve gotten to know many people involved in the club and I have always gotten the impression that they care deeply about doing right by this team and the players. Racing has long said they strived to set the standard in the league and they have a chance to do that now. Racing must agree to submit to the investigation demanded by the NWSLPA. As Betos and McCaskill implied, if the team is as good as they say they are, then these investigations should reflect that. And if problems are uncovered, then they will have the opportunity to address them and handle them immediately. That’s accountability.