Former NC Courage coach part of ‘systematic’ mistreatment in women’s soccer, report finds

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An independent investigation of professional women’s soccer that focused on three former head coaches, including Paul Riley of the North Carolina Courage, found systemic abuse of players and a failure of oversight.

The investigation, conducted by former deputy U.S. Attorney Sally Yates, was commissioned last year after complaints, stemming from Riley’s earlier stint as Portland’s head coach, led the Courage to fire him on Sept. 30, 2021.

The Yates report, released on Monday, provided detail of the verbal abuse and sexual coercion, which former player Mana Shim said occurred when she played for Riley with Portland in 2015.

After being fired by Portland, Riley was not disciplined by the league. That led to his hiring as the Western New York Flash coach. He stayed as the team’s coach when it relocated to Cary and became the North Carolina Courage coach in January 2017.

That, the report said, was just one example of the NWSL and the U.S. Soccer Federation, which oversees the sport at all levels, failing to protect players.

“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches, and victims,” the Yates report stated. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players.”

Other coaches named in the report were former Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly and former Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames.

Yates said she and her team conducted more than 200 interviews, including including more than 100 past and present NWSL players. Some requested and were granted anonymity in the report.

In the case of Riley and the Courage, however, Shim raised concerns to Portland ownership about him in 2015. Though Portland investigated and terminated Riley for what it termed “gross negligence or willful misconduct” that included “socializing with players when alcohol was involved,” that information wasn’t shared with the Western New York Flash.

The report states Stephen Malik, who bought the team and moved it to North Carolina, and Courage chief soccer officer Curt Johnson said they, even now, “have still not been advised as to whether Riley was terminated for cause from the Thorns, nor have they seen or learned of the contents of the Thorns report or Shim’s complaint.”

Shim also said Riley made sexual advances toward her via text message and retaliated against her when she asked him to keep their relationship professional.

Such behavior, including verbal abuse, continued when he coached the Courage, according to the Yates report.

“Over the years, players and staff complained about Riley’s verbal abuse, in response to the NWSL and USSF player surveys in 2014 while he coached the Thorns, and various complaints by staff members at both the Thorns and the Courage,” the report stated. “These complaints generally went unheeded.”

North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, center, watches from the sideline of a 2017 soccer game.
North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley, center, watches from the sideline of a 2017 soccer game.

Courage’s decision to retain Riley

The Yates report states, while considering whether or not to retain Riley as head coach after purchasing the club in 2017, Malik and Johnson were made aware of an incident where Riley instructed two players, one being Shim, to kiss during a visit to his apartment in exchange for a team conditioning run being canceled.

One passage in the report details Johnson’s conversations with U.S. Soccer Federation chief executive officer Dan Flynn, where Johnson said Flynn told him, “Riley had made a poor decision in Portland related to drinking with players” and that Johnson said Flynn told him “that some players ended up at Riley’s nearby apartment where they continued to drink, and a player accused Riley of suggesting during that gathering that she kiss another female.”

Flynn, in the report, denied telling Johnson those details, but did say he suggested Johnson “should talk with the ownership group at Portland, as well as other owners in the league, before he and his ownership group made any decision.”

Though speaking with Thorns owner Merrit Paulson himself to ask about Riley’s background, Malik said Paulson told him Riley was essentially cleared, even though what he did was not smart and exhibited bad judgment.

Malik asked the league office, including then-commissioner Jeff Plush, to provide a copy of the report that cleared Riley.

“Malik’s best recollection was that Plush either demurred that he would look into it or declined to share the 2015 Thorns Report in light of confidentiality issues,” the Yates report stated.

The Courage announced Riley’s hiring on Jan. 30, 2017.

In July 2021, a Courage player complained to the league office about what a teammate felt was Riley harassing her over her weight.

“Specifically, the player detailed how her teammate was told by Riley she needed to lose weight and Riley made her text him her weight every day for over two months,” the Yates report said.

On Sept. 21, 2021, league commissioner Lisa Baird called Malik, asking that Riley “be more conscious of how he phrased such comments” and suggesting that discussions about weight would be “better handled by a nutritionist.”

The player, though, felt her complaint was “treated dismissively.”

Despite all the complaints against Riley, the Yates report details that league officials worked to keep him in the league.

On Sept. 7, 2021, Malik texted Baird to report that Riley was angry with the league’s proposed postseason schedule and told Malik he would resign.

The following day, Baird texted Malik to say, “I had a long talk with (Riley) and strongly urged him not to resign and am glad you didn’t accept it.”

But by Sept. 29, as league officials learned The Athletic was preparing to publish a lengthy report about Riley’s abusive behavior, Baird and Malik began discussing Riley’s termination.

That occurred on Sept. 30, the day The Athletic published its report.

Five NWSL coaches, including Riley, were dismissed last year after allegations of abuse.