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Courage coach Paul Riley accused of sexual coercion in bombshell report

(Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley has been accused of sexual coercion and emotional abuse in an extensive and disturbing report by The Athletic’s Meg Linehan.

The Athletic talked to over a dozen players representing every team Riley has coached since 2010, as well as 10 other sources in the women’s game, detailing Riley’s history of alleged sexual coercion and emotional abuse. Members of each of the three teams he coached described several evenings in which Riley went out and drank heavily with his players.

“It’s almost like an abusive relationship, even when it’s not crossing the line of sexual, because he gives and takes,” one former Thorns player told The Athletic. “The girls just want to please their coaches, they want to do the right thing. Paul said he’ll invest in you, then he takes it away.”

One of Riley’s longtime player, Sinead Farrelly, spoke to The Athletic about the coach’s alleged grooming tactics. Farrelly said he would pay special attention to her at times, and at other times he could be harsh to the point where Farrelly longed for his approval.

Farrelly joined Riley at each of his coaching stops — the Philadelphia Independence, the New York Fury and the Portland Thorns. She said she gave up the final spot on the United States women’s national team’s roster for the 2011 World Cup because Riley told her she was being “disloyal” to him and their team, which at the time was the Independence of the former Women’s Professional Soccer league.

After the Independence lost the WPS final in August 2011, Farrelly described an incident at the team hotel that “changed my whole life.” Her and Riley went back to Riley’s hotel room, where she said Riley coerced her into having sex with him. The next morning, Riley allegedly told Farrelly that she had followed him into his room and that “we’re taking this to our graves.”

But rather than keep silent, Farrelly said Riley kept bringing it up.

Eventually Riley made his way to Portland, where he helped Meleana “Mana” Shim return to the team after the Thorns had initially traded her to Houston as part of the 2014 expansion draft.

“I felt from the beginning like I owed him something because he worked to get me back,” Shim said.

As one of the team’s fringe players, Shim said Riley targeted her, belittling her in her first season before, in her second season, treating her differently in ways that helped build her confidence. She said Riley began to ask to meet with her one-on-one, with requests for coffee meet-ups turning into dinner invitations. That included film sessions allegedly moving from the office at his stadium to his apartment after hours. Shim described one instance in which Riley invited her to a film session in his hotel room. When she arrived, he was in his underwear, according to the report.

During the 2015 season, Shim and Farrelly roomed together on road trips and grew closer. They told The Athletic that, after a night out with the team in Portland in May, Riley invited them back to his apartment and said, if they kissed, the team wouldn’t have to run a suicide mile that week. They briefly obliged, they said, and Riley kept his promise.

In 2015, with the help of Thorns teammate Alex Morgan, Shim reported Riley’s behavior to the Thorns and Jeff Plush, the NWSL commissioner at the time. Based on Farrelly and Shim’s accounts, the Thorns investigated the incidents and decided not to renew Riley’s contract after the 2015 season. At the time, most thought Riley’s exit had to do with the team’s on-field results, a reason Riley endorsed in an email response to The Athletic.

On Wednesday, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson told The Athletic that the findings of the investigation factored into the team’s decision not to renew Riley’s contract in 2015 and that “everything was shared with the league.”

“Immediately when we became aware of these allegations at the end of our 2015 season, Paul Riley was placed on administrative leave and a thorough investigation advised by outside counsel was conducted, working closely with the NWSL league office,” the team said in a statement provided to The Athletic. “The investigation found no unlawful activity, but that Mr. Riley had violated our policies. As a result, we chose not to renew his contract. The findings of the investigation were shared with the NWSL league office.”

Riley was hired by the Western New York Flash five months later.

When the league adopted a new Anti-Harassment Policy earlier this year, Farrelly and Shim tried to renew the investigation with the NWSL and current league commissioner Lisa Baird. According to the report, Baird indicated to the players that the files had been reviewed, the investigation was closed and she could not share any details of the findings.

In a response to questions about his alleged conduct from The Athletic, Riley called the majority of the allegations “completely untrue.”

“I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players,” he wrote.

The accusations against Riley are the latest in a long list of scandals to hit the NWSL over the past year. Back in July, Gotham FC dismissed Alyse LaHue following a league investigation related to the league’s anti-harassment policy. In August, reports in the Washington Post detailed numerous accounts of verbal and emotional abuse by head coach Richie Burke, whom the Washington Spirit then fired. And in September, Racing Louisville fired Christy Holly “for cause.”

Last year, Dell Loy Hansen sold Utah Royals FC following reports of racist comments and a sexist culture in the club’s front office. Head coach Craig Harrington was also placed on administrative leave amid allegations of inappropriate conduct.

The NWSL Players Association is in the midst of negotiations with the league for the NWSL’s first collective bargaining agreement. The PA is fighting for player protections that extend beyond the league’s anti-harassment policy. They spoke out on Thursday, demanding action in the wake of the accusations against Riley.

UPDATE: The North Carolina Courage have fired Paul Riley.