As NWSL hits ‘rock bottom,’ NC Courage fans have a simple ask: Protect the players

By Jonas Shaffer

CARY, N.C. — Six minutes into Wednesday night’s match, NC Courage stopped trying to beat Racing Louisville Football club and joined them in the middle of the pitch — arms around each other’s shoulders while 60 seconds ticked off the clock.

Their minute of quiet solidarity stood for the number of years that have passed since their fired coach, Paul Riley, first came under investigation in 2015. Fans, wearing black and waving “No More Silence” signs from their seats, all knew it.

“It feels like we’ve hit rock bottom,” Louisville goalkeeper Michelle Betos said after the match, “and the only way to go is up.”

The Courage won their match, 3-1, playing for the first time since the team fired Riley after former players accused him of sexual coercion.

But while Courage players and coaches circled the pitch after their victory, waving to fans, they did not speak to media out of a self-expressed need for time to process the problem now plaguing the whole NWSL.

“We’ve just come to a place with this league where enough is enough,” Betos said from the Louisville side. “The league didn’t protect us, so we need to protect each other.”

Last Thursday, The Athletic published allegations of sexual coercion from Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, players from Riley’s stint coaching the Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015. He did not get a contract renewal after that investigation and went on to coach the Western NY Flash, which later relocated to North Carolina.

Earlier Wednesday, owner Steve Malik said the team knew Riley’s behavior had been under investigation in 2015, but had been “subsequently assured that he was in good standing” when it bought the Flash two years later and brought Riley on as coach.

In a statement, Malik called the new revelations “appalling” and apologized for failing to create a safe environment for players to come forward but did not answer further questions.

“I don’t think at this point there’s anything that anybody could have said to make us feel better,” said Mary Pruter, clad in black as part of the Courage support group. “We show up week in, week out, in support of the players. We want to elevate the voices of the players. Obviously, there have been things in the league that have been nefarious.”

The six-minute stopping point came as a call from the NWSL Players Association, which halted play in all of Wednesday’s games. In a statement, the association made a lengthy list of demands.

At the top of the list: Each team’s owner, general manager, coach and member of the board of governors should submit to an investigation into abusive conduct.

Louisville forward Savannah McCaskill stressed the need for a league-wide investigation, noting, “There’s little girls watching us play. They’re going to be in our shoes one day.”

Out in the parking lot, fans threw tailgate parties out of the backs of vans, sipping beers from folding chairs and grateful the whole season hadn’t been called off.

“It’s probably what the girls wanted,” said Kara Baldy, who played soccer for N.C. State from 2007 to 2011.

In the stands, fans pounded tom-tom drums and clanged cymbals through both periods, waving a North Carolina flag. As the National Anthem finished playing, one supporter yelled, “Protect the players” loud enough to be heard from both goals.

Some worried that the league might fold with so much negative attention turned its way. But fans in black saved their energy for the women on the field in front of them.

“Our focus is just supporting the players,” added Jessica Turner, also in the support group. “We can’t change the past. We can’t change what’s happened. We can learn and grow from it as a league.”

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