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Former Thorns players' harassment claims spur NWSL's commitment to 'systemic and cultural transformation'

The NWSL said an executive committee will manage oversight of the league's front office operations after players accused a former coach of sexual harassment.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) pledged to make systemic transformation within the organization after after two former Thorns players came forward with allegations of sexual harassment by former Thorns coach Paul Riley.

Last week, after the allegations were reported by The Athletic, Riley's current team, the North Carolina Courage, fired him. The NWSL called off its weekend games and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird resigned Friday.

On Sunday, the NWSL issued a statement about the formation of a three-woman executive committee to manage oversight of the league's front office operations. The committee is made up of Amanda Duffy, Angie Long and Sophie Sauvage. They'll oversee the league's front office operations until a new commissioner is named.

"On behalf of the entire league, we are heartbroken for what far too many players have had to endure in order to simply play the game they love, and we are so incredibly sorry," the three said in a joint statement Sunday. "We understand that we must undertake a significant systemic and cultural transformation to address the issues required to become the type of league that NWSL players and their fans deserve and regain the trust of both."

The NWSL also launched an independent investigation Sunday into its handling of abuse claims.

FIFA and U.S. Soccer have both opened investigations into why Riley was able to continue coaching even after the players brought their concerns to the league. U.S. Soccer said it retained former U.S. Attorney and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to lead its investigation into abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women's professional soccer.

Riley's alleged misconduct, which includes claims of sexual coercion, stretched back more than a decade, according to a detailed account released Thursday by The Athletic.

Now-retired NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Meleana "Mana" Shim said some of Riley's misconduct took place in Portland during his two seasons with the Thorns from 2014 to 2015. The allegations were investigated at the time, according to a statement from the Thorns.

"We take all complaints about harassment extremely seriously," the team said. "Immediately upon receiving a complaint from a player in 2015, we conducted a thorough investigation advised by an outside law firm and placed Riley on administrative leave. While the findings did not show unlawful activity, they did uncover clear violations of our company policies. Based on this, we chose to sever ties with Riley. The findings of the investigation were fully shared with the NWSL league office."

Riley has denied the allegations made against him.

RELATED: Portland Thorns fans rally to support players following sexual misconduct claims

On Saturday night, dozens of Thorns fans rallied outside Providence Park to demand accountability from the team's leadership. Some held supportive signs, urging that people believe the players' allegations. Others played drums as people chanted.  

The protest was organized by Gabby Rosas with the Rose City Riveters, which represents a group of about 3,000 people that has been supporting the Thorns and professional women's soccer since 2013. 

"We really want to make sure that the players are being centered right now," Rosas said. "They need support. What they're going through is extremely difficult. They're fighting with their bosses and people who have an extraordinary amount of power over them."

Rosas said there are many in the soccer community who want to hold not only the Thorns' administrative leadership accountable but all teams in the NWSL. And it's more than just the sexual harassment allegations, Rosas said.

As consumers and supporters, it's up to the fans to make sure soccer clubs are prioritizing players' rights, Rosas said. This ensures players are being treated fairly, paid a livable wage, along with resources from HR. Rosas said the goal is building a league where players aren't disregarded.

"I hope that, you know, supporters can change the culture in the NWSL," Rosas said. "We can change the culture across soccer in the United States and maybe even the sport itself."

Credit: (Courtesy: Rose City Riveters/Flickr)

The NWLS announced several initiatives Sunday that signify a start in this cultural shift. 

Those initiatives include:

  • An independent review of practices and policies at the league and club levels — including workplace policies for each club in the league, league-mandated anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policy, and processes for identifying, investigating, and enforcing violations of those policies —  to identify and reform deficiencies.  The league will work with the players association to ensure that the results of these team and league reviews will serve as a road map to ensure safe environments for players and staff.
  • Comprehensive policies and procedures created for the league and all member clubs to ensure moving forward that there is a systematic, transparent, and effective execution of any harassment or workplace conduct issues. 
  • A reopening of the 2015 investigation regarding former NWSL coach Paul Riley, including a review of the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Portland Thorns FC, and his subsequent hiring by Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage. 
  • A review of the available investigative reports related to all historical complaints of discrimination, harassment, or abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual) in the NWSL, and where necessary, a reopening of the respective investigation, or the initiation of a new adjudication process.
  • The continuation of ongoing investigations initiated under the NWSL’s current anti-harassment policy, and the recommendation of sanctions where appropriate.

The Thorns put out a statement on Twitter Saturday and said the team would fully cooperate with any further investigation into the incidents.  

The Portland Timbers also voiced their support for the women on Saturday before the rally. 

And on Sunday, the Timbers wore teal ribbons to show their solidarity with the Thorns players.

In addition, the league is partnering with RealResponse, which is a secure and anonymous reporting system for sports teams. This will allow any former or current players and staff to further report any issues regarding their health and safety. The NWSL's current reporting avenues and harassment policy are detailed on the league's website.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.