When former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough went public to the Washington Post about the abusive behavior of former coach Richie Burke, it sent a ripple effect breaking down the culture of silence and secrecy that has plagued the NWSL for years.
What followed were allegations of sexual abuse by against former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley that rocked the NWSL, sparking concerns over safety and transparency in the league. Fans and supporters of women’s soccer are wondering how the misconduct flew under the radar to explode into one of the biggest scandals in American soccer history.
“In DC, when Kaiya McCullough left the team last year, there were some rumblings, but none of us got the impression it was as bad as it ended up being,” says Angie Kanellopulos, president of the Spirit Squadron, a Washington Spirits supporters’ club.
However, when Burke was first brought on to the Spirit as the head coach by owner Steve Baldwin, Kanellopulos says there was talk about his emotionally abusive behavior with Northern Virginia youth players, but it was dismissed.
“Everything we would get out of the locker room was ‘Everything’s fine. We love Richie. Everything is great,’” Kanellopulos says.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes Burke was hurling insults at players, making racists jokes, and belligerently “screaming at them inches from their face”, leaving McCullough, a young Black woman, in tears after practice she told the Washington Post.
“Racists and degrading nicknames emanated from the front office. My coach emotionally abused me,” wrote McCullough in an October op-ed.
The Post reported at least four players left the team because of Burke’s abusive behavior, but his actions were dismissed, further perpetuating the culture of silence.
Courtney Levinsohn, former MVP of the UC Berkeley and former head coach of New York Athletic Club women’s soccer teams, says she was saddened but not surprised when the news broke. The reality of the systemic imbalances is why she founded Women in Soccer – because allegations such as the ones reported by the Athletic and Washington Post “have always been a part of the obstacles of working in the game”.
“What Paul Riley did was criminal, but when one small infraction is not reported you see how far it can go,” she says.
The players are the NWSL’s biggest asset and find themselves in a culture that leaves them to feel disempowered. Levinsohn, who is also a sports psychologist, says women feel isolated in American soccer because there have already been two leagues that have failed. Players tend to internalize the message that they shouldn’t rock the boat or they will sink the NWSL.
“No one wants to be the one who ruins it all. There’s a team dynamic that happens that is very unique to women’s soccer because the psychological game is to make us think it’s fragile, when it’s not, but we all felt it,” Levinsohn says. “It’s a part of the Kool-Aid and for so long it’s been ‘I’ll take what I can get as long as I can keep playing.’”
Doug Reyes-Ceron, co-founder of the Rose Room Collective, a DC United and Washington Spirit minority-led supporters’ group, also recalls hearing “chatter” prior to Burke’s hiring, but “nothing beyond that”. And when Burke was fired from his position as head coach, the first official statement by the NWSL was that he stepped down due to “health concerns” – a move that frustrated supporters Reyes-Ceron says.
“We’ve seen two leagues fold and we don’t want to see another one fold because of the current power structure that is created.”
The Rose Room Collective and Spirit Squadron have ceased supporter activities and are calling for the NWSL to meet all the demands of the NWSL Players Association.
Currently Fifa, US Soccer and the NWSL have launched their own investigations, but Riley is maintaining his innocence, writing in an email to the Athletic: “I have never had sex with,or made sexual advances towards these players.” Burke has been unresponsive.
The bravery of McCullough, Meleana ‘Mana’ Shim and Sinead Farrelly is an example of what happens when players do feel safe enough to speak out. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t find safety within the NWSL. Now, the Washington Spirit players, Spirit Squadron and The Rose Room Collective are demanding that Baldwin sell the team and are calling for more transparency from the NWSL.
“He needs to go. Baldwin wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to own the team and keep these men around who are creating a toxic environment,” says Reyes-Ceron, who has a friendship with McCullough. “The players really prefer Michelle Kang to be the majority owner.”
T”here needs to be more diversity within the higher levels of the club,” says Mary Pruter, president of The Uproar, a North Carolina Courage supporters club. She knew that Portland didn’t like Paul Riley, but like so many, she chalked up his exit to the performance-based excuse given by the Portland Thorns. It wasn’t until the article in the Athletic citing ongoing sexual abuse by Riley that Pruter discovered the truth.
“The keep giving all these people more and more chances but look at the people who never got a chance,” she says. “There’s so much more work the league needs to do to rebuild trust with players and fans. I wish they would’ve been more proactive and partner with organizations that have good track records.”
And while calls for diversity in the NWSL grow louder, Levinsohn says it’s heartbreaking to know that when the sexual abuse was reported in Portland, former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird swept it under the rug.
“What makes the story more challenging for me is that women inside the league did not act,” Levinsohn says. “There’s a feeling of being really let down. I thought having a woman in the position as commissioner would make things different.”
Grooming girls to accept disrespect and maltreatment starts young, says Brianna Russell, CEO and founder of Girls Leading Girls, a San Francisco-based non-profit that teaches leadership and advocacy through soccer. In youth soccer everyone is a reporter and there are mechanism and systems in place for youth to speak out. But not every club isn’t intentional in creating a safe environment Russell says.
“We are training girls to be leaders of themselves, teaching them what their rights are and teaching them how to cultivate close relationships with multiple women in the organization,” Bre says. “We need more women around who are not complicit. People should no longer be able to say I didn’t know. If you didn’t know, you’re incompetent.”
But girls have to speak up, Russell says, and that comes from training girls to stand up for themselves at an early age. Girls already drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys and with abuse happening they will continue to drop out at a faster rate. There’s no independent organization to protect them once they leave youth soccer, she says, and it’s a problem when the safest space they can find is a newspaper.
“It’s the fear of not being able to play and it’s a huge fear. These women want to be able to do what they love for a living,” Russell says. “If there is no one monitoring the situation or the people monitoring the situation are the problem, then they are not going to speak out.”