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Head of NWSL players union says sex abuse allegations tied to systemic problem


By now, you've almost certainly heard about the sexual abuse experienced by some of this country's top female athletes, the women's Olympic gymnastics team. Now some of the top athletes in another sport, women's professional soccer, are stepping forward with their own serious allegations of abuse. As a result, the country's top women's professional soccer league has suspended its games this weekend and announced that its commissioner resigned last night. This turmoil at the National Women's Soccer League, or NWSL, comes after allegations of sexual misconduct were reported about one of the league's coaches. And this is where I need to say that because of the nature of these allegations, the following conversation may not be appropriate for everybody who might be listening. We'll give you a minute to make that decision.

With that being said, the developments in the league follow allegations by the sports news site The Athletic, which reported allegations, going back a decade, that the now-former coach of the North Carolina Courage Paul Riley verbally and sexually abused them, including pressuring a player into sex. Riley wasn't the only NWSL coach to be fired this week. Richie Burke, who coached the Washington Spirit, was also dismissed after he was accused of abusive behavior. A third coach was terminated last August, although the reasons were not disclosed. To hear more about this, we've called executive director of the NWSL Players Association, Meghann Burke, who issued a scathing statement earlier this week about the league's failure to protect its players. And I want to point out that Ms. Burke is an attorney, and she is herself a former professional soccer player. Meghann Burke, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

MEGHANN BURKE: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So these are very serious allegations into Paul Riley's conduct as a head coach. It's reported that he coerced a player into having sex with him, forced two players to kiss each other in exchange for the team not doing conditioning drills and subsequently sent them unsolicited sexual pictures and not only that - that he yelled at and belittled players and, as you've said, that players spoke to the commissioner about this directly. How was this able to continue for so long?

BURKE: That's the question that has haunted all of us as players. It's haunted me personally. I'm sure you saw our statement that the players felt strongly about the demands that we sent to the league this week, and one of them is that we need an accounting for how on earth this coach could have been supposedly investigated by Portland in 2015. There was a conclusion drawn that he had violated what they called team policies. The - I believe the statement earlier this week from Portland said that they found no violations of law, which is patently false. Sexual harassment is illegal. And yet this man was rehired within NWSL, which claims to be a single-entity employer, by the Western New York Flash, which, you'll recall then, was relocated to North Carolina and became the North Carolina Courage. These are systemic failures, and by no means do we think that the departure of the commissioner and general counsel solves it.

MARTIN: And I want to speak more about the specific allegations. I mean, you are an attorney, but I'm asking you to speak as the representative for the players because this happened in the workplace.


MARTIN: And on the one hand, we tend to think of this as sexual harassment. But it strikes me that coercing somebody into sex or obtaining consent through pressure is considered rape. Is there the possibility of a criminal complaint?

BURKE: I'll first say that we wouldn't be here without the courage of Mana and Sinead, who tried multiple times to come forward over a period of, you know, it's been six years since this happened. And at that time, I feel confident they were not advised what their rights and options were, which should have happened immediately. One of the bits of advice they should have gotten is to report it to local law enforcement so that it could be investigated as a crime.

MARTIN: I think one of the things that seems shocking to many people about this is that this is a women's league with a female commissioner who just resigned last night. Her name is Lisa Baird, and she just resigned last night, accused of having been personally told of some of these allegations and yet no action being taken. And I just think people are having a hard time wrapping their heads around that.

BURKE: I think we're having a hard time wrapping our heads around all of it. Earlier this year, when I came into this role, we have 10 teams in this league, and there is one female head coach in this league of women. So you know, there are systemic issues that relate to who gets these coaching jobs, who is in positions of power. And I am certainly mindful that the first two people to be held to account for this are women, as opposed to any number of the men who own this league, who make the decisions behind this league, who hire these other men. And so I'm not at all excusing, by a long shot, what our commissioner or our general counsel, the roles that they had to be complicit in this. But they are not the only ones who are culpable, and the players association is committed to holding each and every single one of them to account.

MARTIN: For the record, I need to say that Paul Riley denied the allegations to The Athletic, and he did not comment to the other news organization that approached him, which is The New York Times. But just for the sake of fairness, I will say that this extensive reporting about his behavior was published in The Athletic, and to The Athletic, he denied most of them.

BURKE: That's right.


BURKE: He did.

MARTIN: Let me just say a final thought here that the games have been suspended. All the matches for this weekend have been suspended. Do you have a sense of next week, what is going to happen going forward?

BURKE: It became evident, especially on Thursday night, that we needed to take what's happening right now, really, at one point, one hour at a time. We're now taking it one day at a time. This weekend, it has been my intention with our members to give them space to take advantage of this opportunity to really process, you know, their own experiences, to process the news. You know, you have a wide range of responses to those players who themselves may have been victims, players who wish that they had known something or done something, players who knew Paul and were close to Paul and thought highly of him and did not see this coming at all.

And so I think for those players, this weekend is really important to give them space to take care of themselves. And we certainly appreciate the outpouring of support, especially from fans who had planned to come to games. It means so much to us. And, you know, we do plan to reconvene on Monday and regroup, and I will tell you that the messages I've been getting are that we're doubling down. This is just a pause to rest, but we are ready to hold every single person to account who had a role in this.

MARTIN: That was Meghann Burke. She is the executive director of the National Women's Soccer Player Association. Meghann Burke, thank you so much for talking with us.

BURKE: Thank you for having me on. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.