LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In a remarkable and sad coincidence, with play in the National Women's Soccer League resuming after last week's bombshell sexual misconduct allegations from two players reported by The Athletic, Racing Louisville FC finds itself on a tour of the two clubs most impacted by recent turmoil, having played the North Carolina Courage in a 3-1 loss Wednesday night before heading to face the Washington D.C. Spirit on Saturday.
Racing, which fired coach Christy Holly for cause at the end of August, is itself a club fighting through some fallout.
As part of a demonstration organized by the NWSL Players Association, players from both Louisville and North Carolina – and around the league – stopped playing in the sixth minute and locked arms at midfield, halting the game to remember the six years it took for the allegations of sexual coercion and harassment against former manager Paul Riley made by Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly to come to light.
In the aftermath of that story, the NWSL postponed games last weekend and league commissioner Lisa Baird resigned earlier this week, as did Washington Spirit CEO Steve Baldwin. The NWSLPA issued a list of demands, including a call for independent investigations of all clubs in the league.
"You may not see it, because this is a league of strong, strong women, but people are hurting," Racing Louisville captain and players association rep Michelle Betos said. "I had so much respect standing in that circle looking at those North Carolina girls knowing what they were going through. You could see their eyes well up, even for that time period. This goes way back. Some of us played for him in Portland. I played for him in club growing up. There's a bunch of his club girls here. This is something that has affected a lot of the soccer world. And I think that minute for us was really hard, but I think the testament to the strength of this entire league is that we are playing through this right now, and playing at a high level."
Riley is alleged to have engaged in sexual coercion and harassment of Shim and Farrelly while coach of the Portland Thorns, who refused to renew his contract as the result of an investigation in 2015. Still, Riley was allowed to be hired at another NWSL club. He was fired as North Carolina coach last week.
The NWSLPA announced before play resumed Wednesday that players would not answer questions about the games, only those dealing with abuse and systemic change in the NWSL.
But that did not extend to specific questions about Racing Louisville, which fired coach Christy Holly for cause, but without explanation, on August 31. It's the kind of silence players say needs to stop – and Betos said that fans can believe that any issues that were discovered within the club will come to light.
"That's not something that we're willing to talk about," Betos said. "I know that the league, the entire world is looking for transparency from our club. And I think that will come in time. I think you guys should have trust in that. But right now, from a player perspective, I will tell you that no matter what it looks like to the outside, they are protecting the players. Our movement is to protect the players, and that may not make sense right now, but I think it will soon. Regardless, they are protecting the players, and we stand behind our club."
Holly was fired abruptly, just 10 days after his team won the inaugural Women's Cup. Sources told WDRB News at the time that Holly had fostered a toxic work environment, but players and team officials would not confirm that description of matters. When asked about how she thought the team had handled the situation, Savannah McCaskill said she "absolutely" approves of the actions taken.
"As soon as it was made aware of any wrongdoing, he was fired immediately and we were taken into account," she said. "We were taken into account and they wanted to protect us from the get-go. And everything that they've done since then has been to make sure that we're safe, have a safe working environment. Anything that we need, we're given, whether it be counseling or support. It's a sense of 'we're here to support you guys and do whatever you guys need.' We've felt that from upper management since day one. They've really provided us with a platform to really thrive and given us anything that we could possibly need to perform, from a facilities standpoint, nutrition, anything that you could think of, we pretty much have at Racing. We have full support in the club."
Nonetheless, Betos said that she expects Louisville to be included in and cooperative with a league-wide investigation of possible wrongdoing within every team.
"We really need to have every club investigated, and hopefully things come out clean and that's great, but there's a long history, since 2013 this league's been around, and things haven't been right," Betos. ". . . Right now, it feels like we've hit rock bottom, and the only way to go is up. . . . Unfortunately, we don't know the half of it right now. I have a feeling a lot of things will come out throughout the league. Maybe some people have handled this well, but there's things you don't know."
Both players called this a pivotal moment for women's soccer and women's professional sports.
"We've just come to the place with this league that enough is enough," Betos said. "It's been a tough week for this league, but this is an accumulation of years. And, you know, as a league, we've decided that we need to stand together. The league hasn't protected us, so we need to stand together to make sure that this gets better. That was our movement today and will be our movement moving forward. . .. This can never happen again."
"We're all fighting for this league to be better for ourselves and honestly for the next generation, because what people have had to come through should never happen ever again," McCaskill said. "There's little girls watching us play that are going to be in our shoes one day. It breaks my heart to think that if we don't do something about this now, then they're going to have to deal with it. And that's just unacceptable."
POSTSCRIPT: These stories happen, and the job requires me to weigh in, to offer an opinion. It seems too simplistic to say that this abuse of women is wrong. Of course, it is wrong. And at this point, to act surprised is disingenuous, because we know these things happen. If we learned anything from USA women's gymnastics, we know that they aren't just the result of bad people, but bad systems. And more than that, if they can happen in perhaps the top women's professional soccer league in the world, they can and do happen everywhere, in professional and educational and home settings of all kinds. I am an aging male sportswriter. My voice is not the one to listen to in these times. My job, in fact, is to listen. But it also falls to me to write. In Louisville, there are all too few women in sports media. In fact, there are almost none. That, too, is part of the problem. One of the hopes is that if women ever get to run the show in leagues like this one, not just as a commissioner but in the bloodstream of team ownership and administration and coaching, that these stories will happen less. The situation as it stands is not OK. We all know that. The best thing I can say by way of opinion is to listen to these women in the midst of this mess, and support them as they look to lead the way out of it.
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