A joint league-union report on widespread misconduct in women’s professional soccer released Wednesday includes new allegations against former North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley.
Kaleigh Kurtz, a Courage player since 2018, told investigators she raised complaints to team officials about Riley’s actions, which included him peppering her with questions about her dating life, him talking about his sexual preferences and chiding her about her weight by calling her “chubby.”
Kurtz eventually asked to be traded, calling the 2019 Courage season playing for Riley a “hellfire,” according to the report.
The National Women’s Soccer League and its players association, the NWSLPA, worked jointly on the report, the second this fall into misconduct by NWSL coaches and administrators. U.S. Soccer issued its own report in October into “systemic abuse” within the NWSL, but the latest investigation goes deeper, received more cooperation from players like Kurtz, and includes new information about Riley and the Courage.
NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman said she hopes this report, along with the U.S. Soccer report, are the start of a “cultural awakening” in the sport.
“Reading that report is hard,” Berman said during a virtual news conference Wednesday . “It’s a hard reality. Reading those words struck a chord with me.”
According to the report, Kurtz told investigators “she did not report Riley’s behavior in the past out of fear of being called a ‘troublemaker,’ but that she felt comfortable being named in this report because ‘players who come forward will be protected.’”
A Courage representative said via text message the team was still reviewing the report Wednesday afternoon and was not prepared to comment. The report noted Riley did not respond to investigators.
NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke said the report drills home how unfair the climate has been for women’s soccer players.
“The weight that our players have had to carry over the generations has been heavier than anything I can imagine.” Burke said during Wednesday’s news conference.
Questions about due diligence
The Courage fired Riley in August 2021 after reporting by the The Athletic detailed sexual misconduct and other mistreatment of players while he coached the Portland Thorns in 2014-15. Despite his departure from the Thorns following an investigation into his behavior, the Western New York Flash hired him in 2016. Steve Malik bought the Flash and moved it to Cary to become the Courage in 2017.
Wednesday’s report noted a “lack of transparency” by the league when the Courage was trying to decide whether to retain Riley as coach, with only sparse details provided and not a full copy of the team’s investigation, and insistence that his contract was not renewed as opposed to being fired.
“Individuals at the Courage learned of a prior investigation into Riley while at the Thorns and attempted to learn more, but neither the Thorns nor the NWSL provided them with the 2015 investigative report, and the Courage were given sparse and incomplete descriptions of allegations and the investigative findings against Riley,” Wednesday’s report stated.
But the report also criticized Malik and the Courage for a lack of due diligence after becoming aware of Riley’s potential misconduct in Portland: “This information suggested that Riley might pose a danger to players, but the Courage did not take adequate steps to learn the findings of the investigation, reflecting a lack of appreciation for the power dynamics between players and coaches, and the Courage employed Riley despite knowing of this allegation.”
And after U.S. Soccer eliminated Riley as a potential candidate to coach the U.S. Women’s National Team in 2019 because of the allegations against him, the report noted no action was taken by the NWSL or the Courage: “Despite the discussions between U.S. Soccer, the NWSL, and both the Thorns and Courage regarding Riley’s unsuitability to coach the USWNT, no steps were taken to remove or prevent him from coaching NWSL players.”
With Riley no longer coaching in the league, Berman was asked Wednesday if any discipline is forthcoming for owners, like Malik.
“Now that the report is released,” Berman said, “it will be our utmost priority to review the findings and determine what the appropriate next steps should be.”
Kurtz: Abuse continued with Courage
Kurtz, a Greer, S.C., native who played college soccer for South Carolina from 2014-16, told investigators that after reading about Riley’s conduct in Portland, she “identified his conduct towards her as abusive, and realized that he had been ‘grooming’ her for sexual abuse.”
She said Riley sent her text messages from a bar during a road trip to Portland, saying how much he wished she was there. Kurtz said Riley frequently texted her from bars. Following the 2019 season, she asked to be traded during an end-of-season meeting. Riley indicated he would do what he could for her, with Kurtz saying he said, “You know I love you.” Riley later told Kurtz she had “no trade value” so she remained with the Courage.
Following the 2020 season, Kurtz again asked to be traded, tearfully telling Courage assistant general manager Bobby Hammond how uncomfortable she was playing for Riley. Hammond insisted that Kurtz would not be leaving the team, even after she reported to him Riley’s comments about her weight. Hammond did not ask follow-up questions about Riley’s behavior.
Hammond told investigators he admitted to Kurtz that “sometimes, coaches choose their words poorly” and that he shared her complaint with Courage chief soccer officer Curt Johnson.
Multiple other players described “Riley’s fixation with players’ weight” and that he “made unrealistic and seemingly arbitrary demands,” according to the report.
When Riley denied to Johnson that he had “weight-shamed” any players, Johnson told Riley to talk to players about their “fitness” not their “weight.” The report said that Malik told investigators he didn’t take action against Riley after a player complained about inappropriate weight-related comments because once he reported the incident to the NWSL he assumed the league would intervene.
“A culture of fear”
The report said that another player told Courage leadership that Riley had been “verbally abusive and created a ‘culture of fear’ in which players could not express opinions, and that other coaches had allowed Riley to engage in this behavior.“
In addition to the 2015 allegations and the new allegations from Kurtz, the report includes other accusations of inappropriate behavior by Riley. Players told investigators that Riley gave them the impression he could influence their call-ups to the U.S. Women’s National Team.
The Courage’s 2021 decision to re-sign Jaelene Daniels, who refused to wear an LGBT pride jersey for the USWNT, was also cited as an example of how players felt that the league and its clubs were not serious about standing against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“One Courage player reported feeling that the club was moving in the right direction in 2021 after the firing of Riley,” the report stated, “but that the club’s signing of Daniels was a decision that ‘says a lot’ and did not ‘align with the direction we thought we were heading in.’”
The club publicly apologized for re-signing Daniels but kept her on the roster. In October, the team announced it was not picking up her contract option for the 2023 season.
This story was originally published December 14, 2022 4:39 PM.