‘This isn’t over’: Orlando Pride players join NWSLPA in calls for systemic league-wide change

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The Orlando Pride still are adjusting to a new reality in the National Women’s Soccer League after reports of long-time abuse and harassment forced the postponement of every league match last weekend.

Team activities — from training to film sessions and even games — were optional throughout the week and the club provided a counselor for players.

Some players opted out of training sessions, but the entire roster was present Thursday morning to prepare for Saturday’s home match against Gotham FC.

As league play resumes, however, interim coach Becky Burleigh emphasized that she doesn’t want to move on from the reckoning to come.

“This isn’t over by any stretch,” Burleigh said. “Even though there were games [Wednesday] night, I think there’s still going to be more things that come through with this. We can’t just assume that we’re back to normal now.”

While NWSL games resumed, each of the three matches was interrupted at the sixth minute, when players joined arms at midfield for a moment of silence to signify the six years in which allegations against former coach Paul Riley were concealed by the league.

Goalkeeper Erin McLeod didn’t specify if the moments of silence will continue in this weekend’s Pride game, but she said the action was significant for players watching from home.

“The one word everyone is saying is ‘powerful,’” McLeod said. “It’s extremely powerful to see the players and all the fans stand united. It brought me to tears every time. Without the players, this league — it doesn’t exist. We have to start taking these issues seriously, or else it’s not a league worth playing in.”

The collective action was organized by the NWSL Players Association, which also released a list of demands ahead of Wednesday’s matches.

These demands included a full investigation of every coach, general manager, Board of Governors representative and owner in the league; an investigation into the scope of knowledge of prior anti-harassment and abuse investigations of every club and front office member.

The players also created a “Step Back” protocol that will suspend any person in a position of power who was involved in the hiring of someone under investigation or previously investigated for harassment.

The NWSLPA demanded full disclosure of all information pertaining to harassment investigations by Oct. 3 and the initiation of an independent investigation by Oct. 13.

“We’re at a point where everyone will be investigated,” McLeod said. “It’s important to make sure that everyone feels safe no matter what and I want us to be a model of that at this club. ... I don’t think any team is immune. To be honest, I think more people will come forward. ... It might get harder before it gets better.”

League sponsors, including Budweiser, Nationwide, Ally and Mastercard, have issued statements supporting investigations into misconduct and further action to protect player safety.

Although the league has yet to lose sponsors over the fallout, the Washington Spirit have taken several blows as owner Steve Baldwin faces calls from players and supporters alike to sell the club.

Sandy Spring Bank pulled its sponsorship with the Spirit. according to a report by the Washington City Paper. A representative from CVS told the Washington Post the company “paused our in-game engagement and other activities with the team” amid the ownership battle.

McLeod said this momentum has been a welcomed change to a previous feeling of helplessness among players.

“This is directly related to the imbalance of power,” McLeod said. “A lot of players in this league don’t make a lot of money, they don’t have the rights. So they feel like their backs [are] against the wall and if they do say something they can be replaced easily. ... I also think for years players have spoken up, they have said something and there have been people in charge and powerful positions that have swept it under the rug.”

Reports from the NWSL ignited players around the world to speak out about similar harassment and abuse. Members of the Australian and Venezuelan women’s national teams went on the record to allege years of sexual abuse from coaches in their federations over the weekend.

Former Canadian women’s national team coach Bob Birarda will face trial for sexual assault and exploitation later this month. McLeod spent Thursday afternoon in meetings with SafeSport — a nonprofit focused on sexual abuse protection — about the Canadian federation.

Burleigh said the weeklong wildfire forced her to reevaluate her own role as a leader in the sport.

“I have been coaching for 30-plus years and I think that all of us, in some ways, are part of the problem,” Burleigh said. “We all take responsibility in some ways if we have been part of things that we have let go ourselves, [even if] that’s on a very minor level.”

The details of the investigation into Riley — who allegedly coerced two former Portland Thorns players into sexual acts during his tenure as coach — struck Burleigh, who previously worked with Riley when he was a youth coach while she helmed the University of Florida’s program.

Riley was fired by the North Carolina Courage last week.

“That was a tough read for me because I’ve known Paul for a very long time,” Burleigh said. “I certainly did not know him in that light, but I think it just goes to show that more questions need to be asked, because you don’t know.”

As the league and its players forge a path forward, Burleigh said increased vetting and training of coaches needs to become mandatory to set a standard for the sport.

“The trainer is certified, the doctor is certified, the massage therapist is certified, the strength and conditioning coach is certified,” Burleigh said. “But coaches, we don’t have a certification process. What is it that makes you a coach? Maybe you played the sport, maybe you knew some people and somebody asked you to get involved in coaching.

“That is for sure something that has to change. ... We just need to professionalize the profession and that’s something that hasn’t really been at the forefront before.”

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com . Email Julia Poe at jpoe@orlandosentinel.com .

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