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National Women's Soccer League cancels weekend games after investigation into coach

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Before we begin this next story, we'd like to warn listeners we're going to be discussing alleged sexual coercion and assault.

This weekend's games in the National Women's Soccer League have been cancelled following player protests. The protests, the cancellations all come after a disturbing investigation published by The Athletic. It centers around the now-former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley. He's accused by multiple players of coercing them into sex or risk losing his approval and place on his team. The players also alleged that Riley hopped from team to team, repeating his behavior. At least one of those allegations was brought to the league's attention six years ago. And today, according to The Athletic, the commissioner and general counsel for the league have now been ousted. Meg Linehan has been reporting this story and joins us now.

Welcome back.

MEG LINEHAN: Thank you for having me again.

FADEL: Basically, your investigation has led to the firing of Riley on Thursday, but your article describes accusations that date back far before this time. Now, the article sort of holistically describes what seems to be quite controlling behavior of these players' lives on and off the field. He's denied all of the allegations in this article?

LINEHAN: In terms of the brunt of the story, he has denied every accusation or allegation involved. I spoke to players from every single team he has coached during his time, and every single one described an environment where there was favoritism, there was - personal boundaries were lowered, just a whole host of issues that feel very concerning.

FADEL: But I'd like to go back to the story - stories of the two women this investigation centers around. What exactly are their accusations?

LINEHAN: So for Sinead Farrelly, her story goes back to 2011 again. And her story, I think, is the much longer one where she has said that she felt coerced by Paul Riley into having sex multiple times. But most of this story revolves around what Mana Shim reported. At the end of the season in 2015, they both spoke about a night after - a night out at the bar after a game where they walked back to his apartment to use the restroom. They said he asked them to kiss each other, and if they did so, the team would not have to run a fitness drill at the next training that everyone hated.

FADEL: According to your report, if - the players felt that their place on the team or their jobs could be in jeopardy if they didn't do these things?

LINEHAN: Yeah. There's so many layers, I think, of concern for their own safety but also their careers as well. Obviously, a head coach has so much power over playing minutes but also if a player could get traded all of a sudden midseason. And I think also, you're not just worried about your own career or your own safety; you're also worried about a team folding or the league shutting down. And so there has been this pressure to stay quiet about things that are happening because there could be not just repercussions for yourself or retaliation, but it could affect the entire sport.

FADEL: But, you know, in the article, there is this one scene that sticks with me - when Farrelly has this sort of panic attack on the soccer field, realizing that this coach might trade to get her back on his team, this coach that she has accused of sexually coercing her, and stops her from elevating, going to the national team. And I just want to talk to you about the impact of this type of alleged abuse.

LINEHAN: With Sinead particularly turning down the national team, like, that is not a decision that players make, right? That is not what you would ever expect. She's turning down a World Cup roster spot. That is a chance to go to a World Cup. That is the height of your career. And so to turn that down after, you know, she said a coach influenced her decision, just - that is a very, very striking moment.

FADEL: Meg Linehan covers soccer for The Athletic.

Thank you for your time.

LINEHAN: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF IMAN OMARI SONG, "MOVE TOO FAST (FEAT. ANNA WISE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.