A week after the NWSL canceled games amid the fallout from allegations of sexual harassments and misconduct against former coaches, the OL Reign will prepare to play again, with the previously canceled match against the Portland Thorns FC rescheduled for Wednesday at Providence Park.
The game was among those slated for last weekend that were postponed after The Athletic published allegations of sexual coercion and verbal abuse against former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. He was subsequently fired and had his coaching license suspended.
NWSL returned to play with three games Wednesday, with teams pausing play to gather at midfield in a demonstration of solidarity.
Reign defender Amber Brooks said it’s not a guarantee other games will also be played. The Bold (11-7-2, 2nd in the Western Conference) is scheduled to host the Chicago Red Stars at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma on Sunday.
“Soccer for so many of us is our greatest joy and a safe haven, a place where we feel most at peace,” Brooks said Wednesday. “So those six teams wanted to play (Wednesday) but this doesn’t even necessarily mean that the games next (will be played). We’re taking it very much game-by-game and day-by-day and seeing how the league responds to demands that we’re making.”
Brooks is the Reign’s representative for the NWSL Players’ Association. The past week was spent formulating the next steps in efforts, she said, to prevent another person like Riley or the other three coaches and one executive — including former Reign coach Farid Benstiti — who were released this season due to misconduct, from being hired again.
In a Twitter thread posted Wednesday evening, the NWSLPA released a list of eight demands to begin the process of “systemic change in the NWSL.” Among those are all coaches, general managers, representatives on the NWSL board of governors and owners voluntarily submit to the Players Association’s independent investigation into the overflow claims of abuse since former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim shared their stories regarding Riley with The Athletic.
The NWSLPA also demands a “Step Back Protocol” that directly impacts the Reign. The players want the 10 current and two onboarding NWSL teams (Angel City FC and a yet-to-be-named club in San Diego) to be investigated from top to bottom. But those who were in leadership roles at the time a club either hired or separated from employment an abusive coach are being asked to “be suspended from any governance or oversight role within the NWSL pending the conclusion of an independent investigation, effectively immediately.”
Bill Predmore, the Reign’s CEO and minority owner, took sole responsibility last week for the hiring of Benstiti in January 2020. The coach was accused by Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan of verbal abuse regarding her weight and fitness while both were at Paris Saint-Germain in France from 2012-16.
Predmore said his organization investigated the matter and felt hiring a team dietitian and defining boundaries, among other measures, would prevent Benstiti from abusing again. During a late-June team meeting, Benstiti violated those rules and hours before a July 2 match in Houston, his resignation was announced.
In an email to The Seattle Times on Thursday, Predmore acknowledged the “Step Back Protocol,” but didn’t clarify if he would honor the players’ demand.
“The NWSL Board of Governors has been in discussions with the NWSLPA today to ensure there is a full understanding of their expectations,” Predmore wrote. “When this process is complete the Board will take time to consider their request and will respond as appropriate.”
Predmore and his wife Teresa founded the Reign in November 2012 as part of the NWSL’s original eight teams. Nicknamed The Bold, the club was based in Seattle and played majority of its matches at Memorial Stadium, but, according to players, weightlifting was optional, there wasn’t a full technical staff nor private locker rooms. Memorial also had elevated lead levels in its drinking water, according to a Seattle Times report in 2019.
The team moved its base to Tacoma in 2019, playing at Cheney Stadium, a facility built for minor-league baseball. The Predmores closed 2019 by announcing the sale of a majority stake in the club for about $3.5 million to OL Groupe, which is the French parent company of the famed soccer club Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon.
The team’s headquarters now include a secured wing at Foss High School leased by Tacoma Public Schools. Those classrooms were configured to provide a gym, a player recovery and a space for film sessions/meetings.
“It’s still not ideal being in a classroom in a public high school but it’s better than what it’s been,” said Brooks, who first played for the Reign in 2015 and rejoined the team in 2020.
Despite Predmore’s hiring of Benstiti, Reign originals Jess Fishlock and Lu Barnes and coach Laura Harvey spoke highly about the culture the Predmores have helped cultivate.
Fishlock and Barnes are locker room leaders who will report issues to Predmore or Harvey. However, the week’s events have exposed the Reign’s need for more structure, Predmore said.
“The various challenges around the league that have had a detrimental impact on players has made clear that we have an opportunity to enhance the experience for our staff and players by investing in a role dedicated to ensuring that we are delivering the safest and most equitable working, training, and playing environment,” Predmore wrote in an email. “To that end, we have allocated budget to increase the size of our staff and started the hiring process for a director of HR.”
In addition to addressing the systemic change, the NWSLPA is negotiating its first collective bargaining agreement.
“We’re doing as well as we can be,” Brooks said of her teammates. “It’s nice to have a game to focus on and get back into that rhythm of training and preparing for a game. So, I think we’ll come out guns blazing on Sunday and ready to go.
“But it’s very much game-by-game is what we’ve decided because, obviously, things are happening and changing and evolving every hour. We’re not making any promises one way or another.”