MWL National Commissioner Baird resigns amid scandal
Women’s National Football League commissioner Lisa Bird resigned after nearly 19 months on the job amid allegations that a former coach was involved in sexual harassment and misconduct.
The league announced Bird’s resignation late Friday, a day after Athletic published accounts of former players alleging misconduct, including sexual coercion, by North Carolina coach Paul Riley.
Riley was fired by Courage on Thursday and the allegations sparked a wave of condemnation from players that forced the cancellation of the weekend’s matches.
In addition, FIFA on Friday opened an investigation into the case. It is rare for football’s international governing body to become embroiled in controversy relating to a member association. US Soccer also announced an independent investigation on Friday.
American football was instrumental in founding the NFL in 2013 and helped support the league until last year, when it became independent. The Federation continues to financially support the league.
“Player safety and respect is the paramount responsibility of every person involved in this game. This is true at every age, competition and ability level,” President Cindy Coon said in a statement. “We owe it to every athlete, every fan, and the entire football community to take every beneficial action We can ensure that nothing like this happens again.”
American Football suspended Riley’s coaching license Thursday after The Athletic published allegations of abuse of former NFL players Sinead Farrelly and Manna Shim.
FIFA told the Associated Press it was “deeply concerned” about the case and would now seek more details from American football authorities about the issues raised.
“Given the severity and gravity of the allegations made by players, we can confirm that FIFA’s judicial bodies are actively looking into the matter and have opened a preliminary investigation,” FIFA said in a statement to the Associated Press. “As part of this, FIFA will contact relevant parties, including US Soccer and NWSL, to obtain more information on the various protection concerns and allegations of violations that have been raised.”
Farrelly’s alleged harassment began in 2011 when she was a player for the Philadelphia Independence team of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Football League.
She told the site that the harassment continued when Farrelly was with the Portland Thorns. Shim, a former Thorns player, was also allegedly harassed. The Thorns said Thursday that the team investigated allegations about Riley and sent her to the league when he was fired.
Riley told The Athletic the allegations were “completely untrue”.
Protests over the allegations have rocked the league and forced the weekend’s games to be called off. The NWSL Players Association said it hoped fans would understand and support the decision.
“It’s good to take space to heal, feel, and take care of yourself,” the guild said. “Actually, it’s more than good, it’s a priority. That, as players, will be our focus this weekend.”
Bird became a commissioner for the NWSL in February 2020, after serving as chief marketing officer for the US Olympic Committee. She was praised for bringing new sponsors to the NWSL and increasing the league’s visibility on the national stage.
OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock, who has been playing in the National Football League since its inception in 2013, suggested that the league, and women’s sports in general, are in the midst of a reckoning.
“I think female athletes specifically have been through a lot over the years, not just women’s football,” Fishlock said. “I think everyone knows what happened with USA Gymnastics that has gone on, and this is something that happens in women’s sports over and over for years and years and years. We have never felt safe enough to talk about it, and if one day we felt brave enough to talk about it, it would just be drifting under the the rug, or we were told we were wrong…and I think we are now at a point where we have just finished.”
Riley was the head coach of the Thorns in 2014 and 2015. After the Thorns left him, he became the head coach of the Western New York Flash for a season before selling the team and moving to North Carolina.
In its ninth season, the NFL has been rocked by a series of recent scandals involving team officials.
Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke has been fired after a Washington Post report detailed verbal and emotional abuse of players. The league officially dismissed Burke and penalized Spirit on Tuesday after an independent investigation.
Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired in July following an investigation related to the league’s anti-harassment policy. It has denied any wrongdoing.
Racing Louisville coach Kristi Holly was sacked in September, but the reasons for his dismissal have not been made public.
OL Reign coach Fred Bensetti abruptly quit in July. On Friday, OL Reign CEO and minority owner, Bill Bridmore, said that Benestetti had been asked to step down after an undisclosed incident during training.
Benestetti has previously accused US national team midfielder Lindsay Horan of sexual behavior during his training at Paris Saint-Germain. Houran said she was reprimanded by Benasti for her weight.
Associated Press sports writer Eddie Beals contributed to this report.
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