In a press conference that OL Reign held on Friday morning, veteran players Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock summarized the feeling of NWSL players across the league after such a solemn few days. “You just have a cloud of sadness that comes over you,” Fishlock shared. “Because the reality of it is: it could have been any one of us.”
In a space where sports are meant to unite and inspire us — to bring us together — the basic promise of safety was stripped away from players. They were reminded of how little power and protection they have had in their careers.
“It hurts. You know, we think we’re in this safe space. And we’re nine years young still, but you always think the league’s moving forward — and you want it to — and then something like this comes up,” Barnes shared. “We’re frustrated, sad, and grieving.”
Fishlock and Barnes were referring to an Athletic story that highlighted the experiences of Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, two former players who claim Paul Riley tormented them with sexual coercion, homophobic remarks, and verbal abuse. Additional details emerged that Portland Thorns leadership was made aware of the abuse by Shim in 2015 and chose to quietly part ways with Riley. Just a few months later, he was hired by the Western New York Flash, which became the North Carolina Courage — a club he managed up until last week and would have continued to manage without The Athletic’s reporting.
In a follow-up story later in the day about Riley’s abuse, The Washington Post confirmed that former OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti was asked to resign due to inappropriate remarks made to players. Yet again, another coach quietly departed a club without the full picture emerging for fans and other players in the league.
Farid Benstiti’s resignation
OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore addressed Benstiti’s resignation in more detail during Friday’s press conference while acknowledging the complicated role that Non-Disclosure Agreements and labor laws play in protecting people whose employment is terminated at a business, including a sports team like OL Reign.
Here are the details that were never made public until now: At a training on the Tuesday before Benstiti’s resignation, he made a comment that was directed to the entire group — not an individual player. That information was shared with Predmore, and Benstiti was suspended immediately. The club was traveling to Houston the next day, and Benstiti did not make that trip. Over the next 48 hours, Predmore talked to players to understand what happened. “Ultimately, I determined that, based on what was said, it was not possible for him to stay. I asked for his resignation on Thursday and we announced it on Friday.”
Even with that reality, however, Predmore had some praise for the departing coach in the club’s announcement in July: “We are appreciative of Farid’s many contributions to the club over the past 18 months and wish him the best in all his future endeavors. We have great respect for Farid’s talents and all he brought to the organization, but in our recent conversations there was a collective agreement that new leadership was required to achieve the performances and results needed to satisfy our ambitions.”
A departure that could read as if it were about results, not player mistreatment.
“The decision ultimately to hire Farid was mine, and I accept responsibility for that,” Predmore said in last week’s press conference. In acting swiftly, the OL Reign CEO claimed, he had to make some sacrifices in how things were messaged. Most businesses cannot share publicly why people are fired or asked to leave, they can only confirm it happened. “That’s what happened in this case, and my feeling was that the most important thing, that my bias was towards protecting the players. That meant making a change as quickly and with as little additional damage as possible. The league was also in the loop on this, so this was not a situation where we were trying to sort of obscure the facts from either the league or the players, but it wasn’t something that I felt was appropriate, given circumstances, to share publicly.”
While what Predmore shared can be true from a legal perspective, both Barnes and Fishlock emphasized how frustrating it was from a player perspective.
“We completely understand the situation and the legalities — and that also is a kick in the teeth, you know, that even legally you kind of end up protecting behavior that quite frankly shouldn’t be protected,” Fishlock said. “At the end of the day, if you don’t want your name in the media, then don’t behave in a way where your name will be in the media. That’s not on us to feel bad for that.”
Barnes agreed. “It’s a cycle that protects people that don’t need to be protected, and we’ve seen it in this league far too many times. We’re nine years young and things are still happening this way, which just goes to show that there needs to be different protections in place.”
What needs to change
It is clear from the examples just this year of Riley, Benstiti, Richie Burke in Washington, and Christy Holly in Louisville that adjustments have to be made to ensure coaches with a history of abuse or toxic work environments don’t have additional opportunities to put players at risk in the league or elsewhere. But what does that look like? Predmore didn’t really have answers but indicated there is alignment on the problem.
“I think there is common ground between the league and the players association to find some sort of a mechanism that is legal — whatever we’re doing needs to be done in a way that doesn’t put any party at legal jeopardy — but some mechanism where situations where an individual clearly should be disqualified from ever being in a league or being around a player, or any of that, some mechanism to prevent that from happening,” Predmore said. “Right now that doesn’t exist, and I think that is an obvious problem that needs to get resolved ideally as quickly as possible.”
When asked in the press conference if the league should prevent those with a history of abuse and harassment from being hired, Predmore was a bit more succinct. “In short, yes.”
Fishlock, on the other hand, was more direct. “When Bill says that those processes have to be changed, they absolutely have to be changed. We have to have things in place, not just from football, from society, that if somebody behaves in a way that is so unacceptable, then that has to be made public so it cannot happen again. And then you move forward and you get better, or you heal, or you at least try to heal. And we are just not at that point.”
Men, protecting men, who are abusing women. I’ll say it again, men, protecting men, who are ABUSING WOMEN. Burn it all down. Let all their heads roll. https://t.co/iHg3JlVVe0— Megan Rapinoe (@mPinoe) September 30, 2021
Next steps from the league
The league announced several initiatives on Sunday as a commitment to “systemic transformation,” while U.S. Soccer hired Sally Yates — former acting attorney general who was dismissed by Donald Trump for instructing the Justice Department not to defend his so-called “Muslim ban” — to conduct an independent investigation.
U.S. Soccer Retains Sally Q. Yates to Lead Independent Investigation pic.twitter.com/r3YLoQ62Ls— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) October 3, 2021
Orlando Pride executive vice president Amanda Duffy, Kansas City co-owner Angie Long, and OL Reign board member Sophie Sauvage will oversee the league’s front-office operations until a permanent commissioner is hired. The league also hired the law firm Covington & Burling to oversee a series of investigations, including a review of Riley’s departure from the Thorns, and to recommend reforms.
While this was a positive step, none of the women on the newly formed executive committee represent the players or are women of color — a significant misstep after Kaiya McCullough was brave enough to come forward with her experience at the Washington Spirit under Richie Burke, which included racially insensitive remarks in addition to verbal abuse.
An unspoken reality is that the league still has a long way to go to be welcoming to Black women and other women of color, in addition to trans and nonbinary athletes like OL Reign’s Quinn. Those layers of experience need to be a factor in any league investigation because there are likely hundreds of stories from these players that we still haven’t heard. And while representation in leadership is just one step, it’s still an important step.
The fact that Black women had to organize themselves into the BWPC because of lack of support from the league WHILE shouldering a whole pandemic that was (and is) disproportionately affecting POC & dealing with a civil rights reckoning & playing a sport in a bubble…— Kai (@hiyakaiya) October 3, 2021
Believe the players
At the end of the day, the best policies and reforms will center around a core truth that should be universally practiced: Believe, trust, and listen to the players. These NWSL players have been speaking up for far longer than we know. It’s time to listen.
“I think that’s been the biggest issue — not necessarily that we’ve been quiet, it’s more so taking us seriously and believing us,” Barnes said. “And I think that’s been the biggest battle for women in probably any workspace — sports, not sports-related — is being believed and always having to fight for ourselves.
“I think that’s why as a collective right now in the league we’re grieving — because this story took seven years to get out, seven years too late. And then obviously the women before us: how many of those same stories have been told and not been believed? I think things like this need to come out and now they have to be handled right — because they’ve been handled wrong this entire time.”
Sounders and Reign fans took a step in giving players a voice this weekend when they gathered at Lumen Field ahead of the Sounders game on Sunday. Signs and chants advocating for the NWSL players led the March to the Match, and the Sounders read and displayed a statement in support of the OL Reign and NWSL players before kickoff.
OL Reign’s outlook
So, where do OL Reign supporters go from here?
On the one hand, OL Reign fans certainly feel some relief knowing Predmore quickly removed a coach who was creating a harmful environment for his players. On the other hand, fans are rightfully frustrated that these details were not shared at the time — and that this event was 100% preventable by not hiring a coach with previous accusations of harassment and verbal abuse. In doing so, players were needlessly put at risk.
While Predmore and OL Reign got it wrong, Fishlock and Barnes still believe that the club has the same vision it did in year one.
“Our organization has gotten it right for a very long time, and I think our values, our standards, everything, have been the same since day one,” Barnes said. “We’re only human. You’re going to get it wrong every once in a while, but we’ve gotten it right a lot more times than wrong.”
Fishlock agreed, while heaping loads of praise onto Barnes and Megan Rapinoe for the role they’ve played in building the culture of the Reign. “We have tried from day one of this club to do the right thing — and for the majority of the time, I’m so proud to say that we have. But even in moments like now, when we got something wrong, we did try and deal with that in the best possible way and with openness and honesty with each other.”
Predmore continues to believe that supporting his players is the best way for him to make good on his vision from the earliest days: to be the best women’s soccer club.
“From the start, there has been this vision to be the best in the world. And we very quickly felt like the path to do that was to have a sort of bias towards creating the sort of environment that is ideal for players,” Predmore said. “I think there have been times where we stray from that path — not purposefully, but as a practical matter, we get off the path. And I think the key to that is recognizing that you’re not on the path anymore and to course-correct. So it is a never-ending journey to get there, but I can promise that in our hearts, in terms of what we’re trying to accomplish, that’s it — to not just create a safe environment for players, which seems to be the bare acceptable minimum that we should be delivering, but to create an environment in which the players can be the best version of themselves. And all of the pieces around them should be there to help enable that.”
And the best version is a team of players who aren’t afraid to speak up when it matters. That makes Barnes hopeful for the future of the league.
“What makes me proud is that, even if we did get it wrong, we corrected it to make it right. I think that momentum has actually changed a lot for the league. I think girls saw that we fought to protect ourselves and that when it’s done right, it works. It’s important that this is happening because we’ve just put up with enough. At the end of the day, we’re just tired.”
How you can support the players
The question on most fans’ minds right now is an important one: how can I help? The best way to support these players is to back their player’s union, the NWSL Players Association. They are in the middle of collective bargaining right now and could use all the support to secure a deal that recognizes their talents and protects them from any future abuse and harassment. You can visit their website to learn more, or donate directly on PayPal.