Courage owner believed alleged abuser Riley was ‘in good standing’

The owner of the North Carolina Courage said on Wednesday the organization was not aware of allegations of sexual harassment against former coach Paul Riley until the report that led to his firing and apologized for the franchise’s “failure” to create an environment where players felt safe in coming forward.

Courage owner Steve Malik’s statement in an open letter was the team’s first public comment beyond the announcement of Riley’s dismissal last Thursday. The allegations rocked the league and led to the resignation of National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Lisa Baird.

Malik said in his letter that the Courage “conducted due diligence” in retaining Riley and the coaching staff after Malik bought the team in 2017.

“We were made aware of an investigation into Mr Riley’s behavior in 2015 and were subsequently assured that he was in good standing,” Malik wrote. “During his employment with the Courage, we had no knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment or coercion. When we learned of the horrific allegations in last week’s reporting, we took those seriously and immediately terminated Mr Riley.”

Two former NWSL players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, came forward with the allegations of abuse, including sexual coercion, dating back more than a decade. The allegations were detailed last week in a story by The Athletic.

Riley has denied any inappropriate behavior.

He coached the NWSL’s Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015, when he was dismissed by the team, which had investigated him and shared its findings with the league. Riley then became coach of the Western New York Flash for a season before the team was sold and moved to North Carolina in 2017.

Riley’s firing was the latest in a string of recent scandals involving the NWSL, the top women’s professional soccer league in the United States.

Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke was fired last week for violations of the NWSL’s anti-harassment policy detailed in the Washington Post. OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti was asked to resign in July after inappropriate comments made during practice.

Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly was fired last month for reasons that have not been made public, and Gotham FC general manager Alyse LaHue was dismissed for violating the league’s anti-harassment policy. She has denied the allegations.

US Soccer and Fifa have announced investigations into the league’s handling of the Riley matter.

NWSL games set for last weekend were called off at the urging of the players’ union. The league was set to resume play Wednesday night, with the Courage hosting Racing Louisville, Gotham FC playing the Spirit in Philadelphia, and the Thorns hosting the Houston Dash.