The year 2021 was a tumultuous one for many organizations, but the NWSL seemed to reach a new level of disruption, and not for any covid-related reasons you may be assuming. Instead, a different type of epidemic hit the league: a slue of sexual misconduct and abuse allegations that booted head coaches from half of the teams in the NWSL over the course of one short season. Of the five coaches fired, all five were men. But don’t let this statistic shock you too much - all but one of the 10 NWSL teams were coached by men at the beginning of this year.
First came the resignation of OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti, which seemed unrelated to any incident of corruption at the time. Months later, however, reports surfaced of his “inappropriate comments regarding fitness and nutrition”, per a Washington Post article. In August, the Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke stepped down amid “health concerns”. Shortly afterwards, the Washington Post published a story citing incidents of emotional abuse and racist remarks from Burke. Not long beyond the firing of Burke, Racing Louisville fired head coach Christy Holly (male) “for cause”. Further details on his abrupt departure have not yet been disclosed. In late September, North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley was fired after two former players accused him of sexual coercion, in a statement published by the Athletic. The news led to a league-wide shut down, and games scheduled to be played on the 2nd and 3rd of October were postponed. Most recently, Chicago Red Stars coach Rory Dames resigned after seven of his current players accused him of verbal and emotional abuse.
This is not to say it’s an entirely male-centric issue; female coaches and executives were not immune to allegations either. Alyse LaHue, Gotham FC general manager, was also fired over the summer after complaints surfaced that she had violated league policy. Specifics on the exact violation were not given. Additionally, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird stepped down days after the firing of Paul Riley and subsequent postponed games, amid speculation she was approached with complaints about Riley in 2015 but failed to act.
Such rapid coaching turnover like this seems unprecedented in any other sport, but that doesn’t necessarily mean complaints of abuse, corruption, and misconduct aren’t happening on the same scale behind closed doors. Be it discouraging, it’s also a step in the right direction to see change occurring, to see those in powerful positions face the consequences of their actions. Following the uprooting of head coaches from half the league’s teams, the new wave of replacements is increasingly female. Marla Messing was named interim CEO of the NWSL. Laura Harvey took over Benstiti’s OL Reign head coaching vacancy. Becky Burleigh ended her collegiate coaching retirement to become interim head coach of the Orlando Pride, although it was announced she will not return next season. San Diego, one of the two expansion teams joining the league next year, recently announced the hiring of female head coach Casey Stoney.
Although the improvements in female representation are welcomed, they’re also sporadic. More male head coaches took over for the openings created by the scandal than women did. It begs the question: why are there so many men coaching a female sport in the first place? Shouldn’t the coaching be slightly more representative of the player pool? It should, but that’s easier said than done. The root of the problem lies in systemic oppression of women in sports, which creates less opportunity for women to become qualified candidates for head coaching jobs in the first place. Take a look at the numbers from women’s college soccer, for instance. In 2018, a Tucker Center report cited only 26% of Division I Women’s Soccer programs were coached by women. And the trend is not good; believe it or not, this number has actually declined, from 39% in 1996. It’s hard to expect the pool of potential female NWSL coaches to be large when the stepping stone beneath it is shrinking.
The misconduct faced in the NWSL this year was undoubtedly bad, but its result, an upheaval of an old foundation and call for change, was ultimately good. Yet there’s much more work to do in the name of diversifying women’s soccer. Not just for more female representation, but for more representation in general: a sideline of coaches and executives of all genders, ethnicities, religions, races, and sexual orientations to match the field of players of all genders, ethnicities, religions, races, and sexual orientations.
*Sarah Mullahy is a Suffolk University Law School, a J.D. Candidate, '23 and currently an intern at Wilmelsport.*