As the NWSL grapples with the fallout from allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against former coaches, the league announced Friday that this weekend’s games would not be played “due to the gravity of the events of the last week.”
The NWSL did not clarify whether games were canceled or postponed. In a statement, commissioner Lisa Baird said the decision was made with the NWSL players’ association.
By Friday evening Baird and NWSL general counsel Lisa Levine were relieved of their duties by the league’s board of directors due to their role in handling the allegations. The Athletic first reported Baird and Levine’s firing, and The Seattle Times was able to independently confirm.
A day after North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley was fired by the team following a report of misconduct, which included claims by two former players of sexual coercion, comes new details about the sudden resignation of former OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti in July.
While the resignation July 2 — just hours before a road match in Houston — was sudden and unexpected, OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said Friday that the abrupt coaching change came following a player’s report of disparaging comments made by the coach about the player’s nutrition and fitness.
The incident, according to Predmore, happened in a team meeting the Tuesday before the July 2 match. Predmore immediately suspended Benstiti, telling the coach he would not be traveling to Houston. Predmore said he spent the following 48 hours talking to the Reign players and decided Benstiti could no longer lead the team Thursday of that week.
Predmore on Friday defended the July resignation announcement that expressed “great respect for Farid’s talents and all he brought to the organization.”
Predmore, who’s also a minority owner of the Reign, took sole responsibility for hiring Benstiti and retaining the coach despite hearing a podcast in March where Portland Thorns FC midfielder Lindsey Horan detailed the body-shaming abuse she suffered from Benstiti and his staff while playing for Paris Saint-Germain from 2012-16.
Horan told Butterfly Road podcast host Cari Roccaro, who’s also a North Carolina Courage defender, that Benstiti snatched a chocolate bar from Horan’s teammate so Horan wouldn’t be tempted. Benstiti also told Horan in front of the team that her body fat was too high to play among other comments.
Predmore said he did consider firing Benstiti last spring but had discussions, including with a French translator to help understand Benstiti, who’s from Lyon, France. Predmore opted to put “guardrails” in place in hopes of preventing a repeat offense. One of the in-house changes was hiring a sports dietitian to handle health discussions.
“In any business where somebody is either fired or they’re asked to leave their job, those circumstances are not always disclosed,” Predmore said. “Part of the reason for that is, sometimes, to affect that change as quickly as possible, it requires compromise on how things are messaged. That’s what happened in this case.
“My feeling was that the most important thing (was that) my bias was toward protecting the players, and that meant making a change as quickly and with as little additional damage as possible. That announcement was a means to that end, and I appreciate that that’s not satisfying.”
While multiple Reign players said Friday that they appreciated Predmore’s swift action, they didn’t like the lack of transparency where many thought it was job performance that led to Benstiti’s resignation. The Reign were last in the 10-team league in July.
“We have to have things in place, not just from football but society, that if somebody behaves in a way that is so unacceptable, then that has to be made public so it cannot happen again,” Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock said. “Then you move forward and you get better and you heal. Or you at least try to heal. We are just not at that point.”
Predmore said he shared the circumstances for Benstiti’s resignation with the NWSL’s front office. While Benstiti’s actions weren’t public at the time, it was the start of a trend that would see three other male coaches and one female general manager being fired for egregious actions the past three months.
Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was fired in July after a league investigation found she violated the NWSL’s new anti-harassment policy. Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired for cause in late August, but details regarding his circumstances have yet to be made public. Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired by the league after allegations of misconduct and creating a toxic work environment surfaced, the club initially stating Burke was resigning for health reasons.
On Thursday, Riley was fired and had his coaching license suspended after The Athletic’s story detailing Riley’s sexual coercion over many years.
Riley resigned from Portland in 2015, the club making similar statements to Predmore’s in its news release. OL Reign defender Amber Brooks played for Riley in 2014 and shared Friday that he fat shamed her and was verbally abusive but she feared repercussions, only speaking out now because Riley has been fired.
“I was told my weight is why I wouldn’t be playing in the near future,” said Brooks, who is a player representative for the Reign. “Who knows who steps into the commissioner role going forward to enact positive change? That’s always a little worrisome when there’s no one at the table right now in that position in the meantime. But it wasn’t just Paul (Riley) that has to go. There’s higher ups, there’s more powerful people than him that are in the wrong and that probably need to go.”
According to an email posted Thursday to Twitter by U.S. women’s national team star Alex Morgan, one of Riley’s victims, Sinead Farrelly, warned Baird of the “pattern” in April.
The article and Morgan’s tweet sparked outrage against the league that many stated mishandled racism allegations by its Black players in May.
“Men protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN,” Reign forward Megan Rapinoe posted via Twitter on Thursday in response to Portland Timbers GM/President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson not speaking against any future hiring of Riley.
“Burn it all down,” Rapinoe continued in the quote tweet. “Let all their heads roll.”
Predmore, OL Reign coach Laura Harvey and club originals Lu Barnes and Fishlock said Friday that they read The Athletic’s article and didn’t have a formal training Thursday.
“We’re grieving,” Barnes said Friday of herself and teammates regarding allegations against Riley. “What happened to one of these players in our league, a couple of them, probably more than we know. So, it hurts. We think we’re in this safe space, and we’re nine years young still, but you always think the league is moving forward and you want it to, then something like this comes up that was addressed, kind of covered up and continuing to stay within the league. For the (team), we’re frustrated, sad and grieving.”
The Seattle Times requested comment from Benstiti via email Friday and has not received a response.
The Reign (11-7-2), which is on a six-match unbeaten streak, was preparing for a Cascadia derby Saturday against Portland at Providence Park. A win would have leapfrogged The Bold to first place in NWSL standings against the Thorns (12-5-2).
Harvey said the Reign players’ emotions and needs are the priority. The club did have a voluntary training Friday.
“Our club has handled it really well,” Barnes said. “We have every resource that we need. They’re letting us deal as individuals with this and however we need to heal. We’re supportive of everyone that’s come out and the ones that haven’t, either. As a group, we’re really strong. And when I say group, I’m talking about every single player in this league.”