The National Women’s Soccer League cancelled its weekend games on Oct. 1 after it was notified of reports of sexual abuse against players. Players protested the league’s inability to play days later and offered their solidarity. Both teams’ players emptied their benches and joined hands in the middle circle, arm-in-arm.
The players responded to a report from Meg Linehan, The Athletic. It detailed alleged abuse against Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim over the past decade by Paul Riley (subsequently fired as North Carolina Courage coach). These allegations date back to Riley’s tenure as Portland Thorns coach from 2014-15. In an interview with USA Today , Shim stated that Riley was a predator. He sexually harassed and abused me. He coerced Sinead sexually and took our careers away.”
In the sixth minute of each match, the players protested to show the six years Riley and his partner were made to keep silent about their abuse. Riley denied the allegations.
This scandal joins many other high-profile cases in high-profile women’s sports like USA Gymnastics. Although sexual abuse has been an issue in women’s sports for years, the extent of it is not known. The scandal involving the NWSL has shaken the league with calls for the resignation of abusive staff members and owners who allowed the abuse to spread across multiple teams.
Many fans and observers have wondered if there will be a survival of the NWSL. This question serves as a stark reminder about how fragile professional women’s sport is even in 2021.
Women’s sports leagues have been a common phenomenon in the United States. They usually arose after well-publicized victories by U.S. teams. Two years after Brandi Chastain won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the Women’s United Soccer Association was established. This was the first attempt at a women’s soccer league. It lasted only two seasons.
Women’s Professional Soccer was the next attempt. It was established in 2007 during a string of three consecutive Olympic gold medals for America. In 2012, it was replaced by the NWSL. The NWSL added four franchises to the four WPS ones.
The North American soccer leagues are not the only ones to fail. After 12 seasons , the Canadian Women’s Hockey League was shut down in 2019. The American Basketball League, which was founded three years prior to the WNBA’s in competition, shut its doors in 1999.
Women’s professional sports have suffered from less media attention and funding than their male counterparts. The NWSL has signed a three year TV rights agreement with CBS, Twitch and the streaming platform Twitch. This deal places the season opener, championship and 14 additional games on CBS Sports Network. Major League Soccer, America’s premier men’s soccer league, has a much larger financial deal with ESPN and Univision. It will air at least 34 games during the regular Friday and Sunday broadcast windows.
This systemic misogyny is responsible for the lack of interest in women’s sports. Many people think women’s sports are inferior because they are more athletic than men. But the games are often very different. Many avid basketball fans will tell ya that the men’s game has more skill and more dunks than the women’s. The skill level of the players is just as high, if they are not better, and there are only occasional dunks. The women’s soccer game is just as skilled, with beautiful goals and a skill level that rivals the men’s.
Men almost from birth get more financial resources, coaches resources, and training resources than women. This is because they assume that women are superior in athletics. This is a recipe for failing pro leagues and for enabling the abuse we’ve seen in gymnastics and soccer.
There is not a mass movement dedicated to ending the sexual abuse of women’s athletes. Instead, a large effort to exclude transgender women from games was incorrectly called the campaign to “save female sports.” This is a serious misallocation and focus on need rather than on advancing bigotry.
The abuse of women will only continue to grow and fester in the darkness caused by inattention until they are treated equally in all aspects, including dignity and athletic merit.