Shows of support, solidarity as Courage back on soccer field for first game since firing of coach

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) -- The North Carolina Courage took the field Wednesday night for its first match since the firing of its head coach over allegations of sexual coercion last week.

Players on both the Courage and their opponent, Racing Louisville, came together at midfield, joining arms in a moment of solidarity about six minutes into the game.

Fans turned out in good numbers to show support for the players.

"I think we are disappointed, we're upset, we're angry, we're shocked. It's been a rough week for us, for the players, for the fans all over," said Mary Pruter, a member of the fan group Uproar.

Kelly Ritch, a mother of two and a season ticket holder, also was disappointed with the past week's events.



"You want to reinforce the messages of creating a safe and open environment," Ritch said. "It's disappointing and it just continues to be disappointing, but in general we want to support the players and the community."

Players were not made available to the media.

"It's disappointing and it's getting old, it's just a really old message and you just hate to see how hard these players work and having to endure these difficult work environments," Ritch said of the allegations. "We all have to keep showing up and doing better and we have to create a bigger community of allies because that's the only way to change this."

Steve Malik, the owner of the Courage said Wednesday that 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.

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."

Jessica Turner, another member of Uproar, was "shocked" at the allegations but happy to come out and support the team.

"The atmosphere is great, the players are amazing, we're looking at some of the best players in the world come here week in and week out, so it's amazing to come out and support the players," Turner said. "We're happy that for us this is a space we can all come together and enjoy soccer and still get to support the players. Particularly in a league and our league here that really touts empowerment and a lot of young girls, young soccer players look up to these players, they look up to the league, they hope to one day play in this league.

"For us in the supporters' group, we were really shocked by, we were really saddened by, really angered about, and for us, we have to do what we can to support the players to make sure they are the voices centered forward and players are protected today going forward," she added.

Two former NWSL players, Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim came forward with 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 antiharassment 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.

U.S. Soccer and FIFA have announced investigations into the league's handling of the Riley matter.

Julia Carolan, a seventh-grader who plays soccer, summed up the mood Wednesday evening.

"I don't think it's OK to treat any soccer player or woman like that for any reason, and it's important to speak out when that happens," Carolan said. "This team has been through a lot especially with the coaching staff, and I think they deserve to know their fans are loyal and still support them."

AS for the match itself, the Courage beat Racing Louisville, 3-1.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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