In its decade of existence, the National Women’s Soccer League has been rocked by widespread allegations of emotional, verbal and sexual abuse. The E60 documentary “Truth Be Told,” which is now available to watch on ESPN+, chronicles some of the most serious allegations of abuse in the NWSL, with a closer look at two of the most notable, involving former Portland Thorns coach Paul Riley and former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke.
Here, we take you through how these stories unfolded, step by step, based on contemporaneous reporting. In addition, Monday’s 319-page investigative report by former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Yates serves as supporting source material for much of what is alleged to have happened.
In an effort to explain a complicated situation, we have divided the two timelines in order to make them easier to follow, focusing on the facts, actions and notable quotes around each situation.
Dec. 10, 2013
The Portland Thorns announce Paul Riley as their next head coach after coach Cindy Parlow Cone resigns after one season to spend more time with her family.
Jan. 10, 2014
The Houston Dash draft Thorns midfielder Meleana “Mana” Shim in the NWSL expansion draft. Shim tells Riley she wants to stay in Portland, according to her interview with E60.
Jan. 17, 2014
The Thorns trade NWSL college draft picks to keep Shim. “We didn’t want to lose her in the first place,” Riley said. “Since Houston drafted her, our priority had been to get her back.”
May 9, 2015
After a game at Providence Park in Portland, Thorns players and coaches go to a bar, where Riley gives the bartender his credit card and says: “Get the girls whatever they want.” Riley, an assistant coach, Shim and teammate Sinead Farrelly are the last ones to leave the bar and, walking back, Shim needs to use the restroom and Riley offers his apartment, which is nearby.
There, the assistant coach soon leaves, but Riley allegedly gives the players more drinks and asks Shim to dance with him, coming up behind her and trying to grind on her, Shim told E60. When Riley leaves to use the restroom, the players decide to leave, but wait to say goodbye to him because they didn’t want to upset him. When Riley returns he asks if they ever hook up, and then allegedly asks them to kiss each other. He then adds an incentive: If they do, he will cancel a team drill known as “the suicide mile” at training.
June 5, 2015
On a road trip in Houston for a game the next day, Riley asks Shim to come to his hotel room to watch game film. Shim, who is sharing a room with Farrelly, confides in her teammate that Riley had been making her uncomfortable since that incident in May. He had started texting her more frequently and he started asking her out for one-on-one dinners, she says.
Shim allegedly shows Farrelly a photo Riley had sent her: it is Riley wearing nothing but compression shorts. Farrelly didn’t tell Shim at the time, but Riley had sent Farrelly similar photos when he coached her at a previous club, she has alleged.
When Shim arrives to Riley’s room for the film review session, Riley opens the door while standing behind it, and once Shim is inside, she sees that Riley is wearing only his underwear, white briefs, she told E60. He allegedly tells her to get on the bed to watch film, but he doesn’t have any film ready to watch. Shim says she needs to prepare for the next day’s game and leaves.
Mana Shim discusses her alleged sexual misconduct under former coach Paul Riley, and why she decided to speak out. Watch the documentary, E60: Truth Be Told, now ESPN+.
July 5, 2015
Shim sends Riley an email with the subject line “Concerns” and tells him that she has “felt uncomfortable” with the way he has treated her: “We both know that your interactions with me have been inappropriate and it has negatively impacted me on the field,” she writes. According to the Yates investigators, Riley deleted the email and cleared his trash folder upon receiving it.
Afterward, Shim saw her playing time with the Thorns reduced.
Sept. 8, 2015
Portland Thorns general manager Gavin Wilkinson says Riley’s future at the club is undecided after missing the playoffs that season. “It’s a decision that we’re evaluating, to be honest,” Wilkinson said.
Sept. 16, 2015
Shim files a formal complaint to the Thorns about Riley’s behavior, which includes more allegations than just the ones in May and June. She emails Wilkinson, club owner Merritt Paulson, Riley and the club’s HR director. She then forwards her email to Jeff Plush, commissioner of the NWSL, who tells her that he spoke to Paulson and the league will follow the Thorns’ investigation.
Sept. 17-22, 2015
The Thorns begin an investigation into Shim’s allegations. The Thorns HR director interviews Shim alone. Farrelly is also interviewed by the HR director alone, one time, for 20 minutes, she has said.
Sept. 22, 2015
Another NWSL team, Sky Blue FC, contacts the Thorns expressing interest in hiring Riley. Paulson sends a note to Wilkinson about this: “Good and thanks.”
Plush shares Sky Blue FC’s interest with Lisa Levine, U.S. Soccer’s legal counsel, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn. Gulati responds: “Let’s make sure we are up to speed on how the Portland situation is being handled/investigated.”
Levine calls Sky Blue FC that day to reveal that a player had “alleged sexual harassment against Riley.” Sky Blue FC says it will find a different coach, and that information would stay confidential.
Sept. 23, 2015
The Thorns publicly announce that the club “would not be retaining” Riley as coach, but the club does not disclose that Riley’s contract has been terminated. In a press release, Wilkinson is quoted as saying, “On behalf of Thorns FC, I would like to thank Paul for his services to the club these past two seasons.”
In Riley’s termination letter, also dated for Sept. 23, 2015, the Thorns cite cause for firing him, including “neglect, refusal or willful failure to render services,” “gross negligence or willful misconduct,” and behaving in an “adverse manner” including “dishonesty, fraudulent behavior, unethical behavior and the like.” The letter also states: “While our investigation did not reveal any unlawful conduct by anyone, we did confirm that on occasion, you exercised poor judgment in your interactions with one or more players.”
Oct. 26, 2015
The Thorns trade Farrelly to the Boston Breakers. Farrelly asks Wilkinson if it had to do with the Riley investigation, which Wilkinson denies. Farrelly also asks if Riley will be allowed to coach in the NWSL again, but Wilkinson doesn’t answer, according to Farrelly’s account.
The Western New York Flash, another NWSL team, considers Riley to be the club’s new head coach. Aaran Lines, vice president of the Flash seeks a referral from Wilkinson, a former teammate of Lines’ on the Portland Timbers and the New Zealand national team.
Wilkinson tells Lines that the Flash should hire Riley if they have the chance, and Wilkinson “would hire him in a heartbeat.” Wilkinson does mention Shim’s allegations, but suggests Shim is a “disgruntled player” and tells Lines that Riley “was put in a bad position by the player,” per the Yates report.
Alex Morgan reveals the extent of former coach Paul Riley’s verbal abuse toward his players in this bonus clip from E60: Truth Be Told, now available on ESPN+.
Feb. 19, 2016
The Flash announce Riley as the next head coach. “After matching up with him for many years, I’m thrilled to announce Paul Riley as the second coach in our club’s eight-year history,” Lines said.
Paulson emails the president of the Flash: “Best of luck this season and congrats on the Riley hire. I have a lot of affection for him.”
Jan. 9, 2017
Stephen Malik, a businessman and owner of a USL men’s soccer team in Cary, North Carolina, announces he has bought the Western New York Flash, and he will relocate the team and rename it the North Carolina Courage.
Jan. 30, 2017
The Courage announce Riley will be the club’s first-ever head coach.
Before choosing to hire Riley, Malik reached out to Paulson on the advice of Gulati. Paulson never told Malik that Riley had been fired and said Riley had been investigated for “poor judgement” when players came to Riley’s apartment after a night of drinking, per the Yates report. Paulson also reportedly told Malik that Riley was “a good fit” for the roster at the Courage.
Malik asked Plush for a copy of the Thorns investigation report, and Plush did not share it.
Oct. 8-14, 2017
As the Courage and the Thorns face one another in the NWSL playoffs, Paulson and Riley engage in friendly public banter on social media and praise one another, which they will continue to do publicly for years.
July 30, 2019
Jill Ellis announces she will step down as head coach of the U.S. women’s national team.
July 31, 2019
In a recorded segment for ESPN, former U.S. women’s national team defender and analyst Kate Markgraf gives her shortlist of candidates for the vacant post of the U.S. women’s national team head coach. Riley, who had reached two NWSL championships with the Courage, is one of the names.
Aug. 12, 2019
Markgraf is announced as U.S. Soccer’s first general manager for the women’s national team program. Her first responsibility is to hire the next USWNT coach.
Aug. 14, 2019
Representatives for the U.S. women’s national team players’ union, the USWNTPA, contact U.S. Soccer legal counsel Lydia Wahlke and tell her that the players would not support Riley as coach due to his past in Portland. Wahlke communicates this to the Thorns.
That same day, Paulson and Malik have a phone conversation to discuss that it would “be a good idea” if Riley withdrew from the running for the national job. Per the Yates report, Paulson does not explicitly state why, though — messages show Paulson still attempted to keep the fact that Riley had been fired a secret from Malik, with Paulson explaining: “Paul’s contract was up when he left us and we didn’t renew it. A technicality but a distinction.”
March 15, 2021
Shim sends her 2015 complaint about Riley to Lisa Baird, Plush’s permanent successor as NWSL commissioner. Shim notes she had sent it to Plush, but Riley is still coaching in the league, and she is requesting a new investigation so the NWSL “will finally enact the necessary protective measures that current players are entitled to have in the workplace.”
Baird responded by thanking Shim for the email, but she ignored the request to reinvestigate.
April 28, 2021
Farrelly emails Baird asking for Riley to be reinvestigated because the Thorns never followed up on allegations Farrelly shared during the club’s 2015 investigation into Riley.
“No one from either the team or the NWSL ever independently investigated my allegations that I raised in the 2015 investigation, despite their serious nature,” Farrelly wrote. She adds that she is “deeply concerned for the safety of current players given that Mr. Riley continues to coach in the NWSL.”
May 5, 2021
Baird responds to Farrelly’s email and tells her that “the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion” and, “Unfortunately, I cannot share any additional details.” She closes her response: “Thank you again for your email and I wish you the best.”
Sept. 7, 2021
Malik texts Baird that Riley had resigned from his position with the Courage due to his anger over the league’s scheduling.
Sept. 8, 2021
Baird texts Malik: “I had a long talk with [Riley] and I strongly urged him not to resign and I am glad you didn’t accept it.”
Former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird discusses her response to Mana Shim’s allegations of sexual coercion by Paul Riley. The documentary, E60: Truth Be Told, is available now on ESPN+.
Sept. 30, 2021
The Athletic publishes an article in which Shim and Farrelly share publicly for the first time their experiences with Riley, including allegations of predatory sexual harassment and coercion, as well as other inappropriate behavior. Riley denies any wrongdoing.
The Courage fire Riley shortly after the article is published. “In light of today’s reports, the North Carolina Courage have terminated head coach Paul Riley, effective immediately, following serious allegations of misconduct,” a statement said.
Baird issues a statement, saying she is “shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic.” In response, Alex Morgan, who had helped Shim file her complaint with the Thorns in 2015, shares screenshots of Baird’s email exchange with Farrelly.
Oct. 1, 2021
The NWSL Players Association and players around the league announce games will be canceled that weekend.
“Yesterday was a profoundly painful day for us, as players, and so many. For many players, the pain has stretched across years,” an NWSLPA statement reads. “The outpouring of support we have felt has been a beacon of light on a dark day.”
Baird issues her own statement announcing the decision to postpone games: “This week, and much of this season, has been incredibly traumatic for our players and staff, and I take full responsibility for the role I have played. I am so sorry for the pain so many are feeling.”
Hours later, Baird resigns as NWSL commissioner.
Oct. 4, 2021
Paulson issues an open letter in response to The Athletic’s article, stating that the Timbers and Thorns “disavow the culture of silence that may have allowed for additional victimization by a predatory coach.” He admits the club “made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination,” but says the club was “guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy.”
Paulson vows to conduct an investigation into how the club handled the 2015 complaint against Riley, and he adds: “Whatever findings result from this review, I commit to you, we will make public in summary form.”
Oct. 6, 2021
Malik issues a statement in which he says someone assured him Riley was fine to hire: “When we bought the Western NY Flash in 2017, we conducted due diligence to continue with Mr. Riley and the coaching staff. We were made aware of an investigation into Mr. Riley’s behavior in 2015 and were subsequently assured that he was in good standing.” When media, in response to his statement, ask who provided those assurances, Malik does not return requests for clarification.
Malik’s statement continues: “During his employment with the Courage, we had no knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment or coercion.”
Jan. 25, 2022
The Thorns close their investigation into the Riley ordeal without interviewing any players. Wilkinson is reinstated to a role overseeing the Thorns as the Timbers/Thorns “president of soccer.” When asked by the media, the club declines to make the results of the investigation public.
Oct. 3, 2022
U.S. Soccer’s yearlong investigation conducted by former deputy U.S. attorney general Sally Yates is released. The report says the Thorns did not cooperate with the investigation and the club refused to share its 2015 investigation into Riley and tampered with witnesses who had agreed to speak with investigators.
The report reveals that Paulson had warnings about Riley prior to Shim’s complaint that he failed to act on. Players report that both Paulson and Wilkinson made sexist, demeaning and/or inappropriate comments to Thorns players and female staff.
Oct. 10, 2018
The Washington Post reports that a local tech executive, Steve Baldwin, is in talks to buy the Washington Spirit from the owner who founded the club in 2013. Neither the club nor the NWSL formally announces the sale, but by December, Baldwin has taken control of the team.
Dec. 27, 2018
Reports emerge that Baldwin has decided on Richie Burke as the Spirit’s new head coach, and Baldwin reportedly did not consider anyone else for the position.
Burke, a local youth coach in the D.C. area, has never managed a professional team, but he had coached Baldwin’s daughter, Carlyn, when she was in high school playing for National Cathedral School.
Jan. 4, 2019
The Spirit announce Larry Best as the club’s new CEO. Best has no experience running a professional sports team, but he had coached Baldwin’s daughter, Carlyn, when she played for a local youth academy team in the D.C. area.
Jan. 8, 2019
The Spirit officially announce Burke as the club’s new head coach.
Feb. 25, 2019
A parent of a boy who had been coached by Burke at FC Virginia speaks out on social media, alleging that Burke used “homophobic slurs” and engaged in “disturbing coaching behavior,” which resulted in boys on the team seeking “medical intervention for the abuse.” In interviews with local reporters, the parent confirms the same details and says Burke berated the boys.
The Spirit issue a statement saying they have looked into the allegations and are aware of an investigation that took place when Burke coached at FC Virginia, but that other parents were happy with Burke’s coaching.
“What we have learned from FC Virginia and from Coach Burke is that at time of the issue, FC Virginia investigated the matter and determined no action was necessary,” the statement says. It adds: “As attention to this incident grew online, we were very pleased to receive support from numerous parents who have worked with Coach Burke throughout the years, including many from parents of this FC Virginia team.”
March 6, 2019
Another former player of Burke’s from D.C. United’s under-23 team alleges that Burke was abusive as a coach. Burke would use anti-gay language and insults toward members of the team, the player said.
D.C. United issues a statement saying that Burke had worked for D.C. United youth teams in only a temporary capacity and he “was never an employee of D.C. United,” but the club was not aware of any allegations from his time with D.C. United’s academy teams.
April 9, 2019
Baldwin issues his first statement as the new owner of the Spirit and acknowledges officially for the first time the club’s sale.
“I come to the Washington Spirit as a father of two daughters, one that plays the game. So, yes, I am a soccer dad,” he writes. Being a soccer dad, he adds, gives him “an understanding of the feelings a parent has when their adult daughter moves across the country or the planet to start their professional career with the Spirit in a new place with new people. I’m mindful in all we do that our players have soccer parents, just like me, that care most about the lives of their daughters off the pitch.”
May 26, 2019
Burke is asked by a reporter if he plans to address with his current Spirit players the allegations that he had previously used homophobic slurs. “Not really because I’ve got no interest in showing a bias in any way,” he says. “It’s not a metric I think about. I think about people — I like people.”
Dec. 29, 2020
Y. Michele Kang, a local CEO of a tech company, is announced as a new minority stakeholder in the Spirit’s ownership group after purchasing 35% of the team. “I believe it is essential for successful women to take the lead in advancing other women, and I look forward to doing so for the women of the Washington Spirit,” she says in a statement.
Aug. 10, 2021
The Spirit announce that Burke has stepped down as head coach and has been “re-assigned” to the club’s front office due to health problems.
“Yesterday Richie advised me of some health concerns,” Best says in a statement, “and we mutually agreed that it was in the best interests of him and of the club for him to step down as our coach. Once Richie’s health improves, he will join the sporting operations front office staff.”
Aug. 11, 2021
The Washington Post releases a report that includes interviews from current and former Spirit players alleging abuse from Burke.
Kaiya McCullough is the only player to allow her name to be used in the article — she says she left the Spirit due to Burke’s emotional and verbal abuse. McCullough and other players say Burke called the players “dog s—” and “a waste of space,” among other insults. McCullough alleges that Burke repeatedly made racially insensitive remarks, joking to a Black player who had been hit in the eye that “Black eyes matter.” After George Floyd’s murder, Burke joked that, for a photograph of players kneeling on the field, they should pose with an inflatable dummy under their knees.
After being contacted by the reporter, Baldwin issues a statement vowing an investigation. “We, as a team, will not tolerate any situation for our players and staff that is less than professional,” he writes. “Our athletes, and all of those who support them, deserve the absolute best.”
The NWSL begins conducting an investigation.
Kaiya McCullough reveals why working under former coach Richie Burke left her wanting to quit the Washington Spirit. The documentary E60: Truth Be Told is available now on ESPN+.
Aug. 13, 2021
Kang and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird are seen watching a Spirit game together. After the Post’s article, Kang had flown in a private jet to meet with Baird, and both met with players after the game.
Aug. 30, 2021
A power struggle for control of the Spirit between Baldwin and Kang becomes public. Baldwin had offered to sell the team to Kang in April 2021 after she raised concerns about the direction of the club, but he later changed his mind.
In an email to NWSL owners, Baldwin had accused Kang of meddling in the team’s “day-to-day affairs” and “compromising” the team’s messaging, and he alleged that she met with Baird after the Post article to force him out of running the club.
Sept. 2, 2021
The Spirit announce that Ben Olsen has been hired as club president. In his role, he will “oversee all day-to-day operations, driving the development of the team’s business and sporting operations, and the overall effort to enhance the club’s culture and identity.”
Olsen has no experience in women’s soccer, and he comes into his new role after a decade as head coach of MLS team D.C. United.
Sept. 4, 2021
A local D.C. sports radio host tweets that Kang is being investigated under the NWSL’s new anti-harassment policy. Reporters, following up on that tweet, learn that it was Best who had lodged the complaint against Kang.
Shortly after, the sports radio host also tweets that sources have told him a “dumpling making party” hosted by Kang, who is Asian-American, “is believed” to have caused an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak within the Spirit team, which forced them to forfeit a game. Reports later reveal that the outbreak actually happened after one of several unvaccinated players on the team traveled and did not follow isolation protocols.
Sept. 22, 2021
A new Washington Post investigation reveals what employees call a “misogynistic” “old boys’ club” at that Spirit.
The report details several high-ranking female staffers who have recently quit. Sources allege Best had demeaning nicknames for players and female employees, including “Mexican Mama” and “Japanese Girl,” and he repeatedly joked that one player should be known as “Dumb Broad.” An internal survey from months prior had found that players and staff felt misogyny was a problem.
Sept. 28, 2021
The NWSL concludes its investigation into Burke, and the league announces that he is no longer allowed to coach in the NWSL. The NWSL’s board of governors, which is made up of owners from teams throughout the league, voted for the decision.
“After considering the substance of the report, and taking into account prior actions of the Spirit, the NWSL’s board of governors has determined that the Spirit and its ownership have failed to act in the best interests of the league,” an NWSL statement says.
Oct. 5, 2021
Baldwin announces that, at the request of Spirit players, he is resigning as CEO and “Managing Partner” of the Spirit, and Olsen will have full authority over club operations. “I hope that stepping back removes me as a distraction and allows the club to thrive,” he says.
Hours later, the Spirit’s players release a joint statement asking Baldwin to sell the club to Kang, and they criticize Baldwin for appointing Olsen as his replacement.
“When we asked you to step aside, step back from management, we clearly meant you should not retain any management control. We are sure you understand that,” the statement says. “You still have a firm grip as majority owner on the decisions that need to be made at the club, even if they are made from behind a veil. In your final act as Managing Partner, you passed the baton to someone who has virtually no experience in the role you left to him. … We don’t have a reason to believe you won’t be involved.”
“Let us be clear. The person we trust is Michele,” the players continue. “She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens.” The players finish by asking Baldwin to “please sell to Michele at a reasonable price.”
Oct. 29, 2021
In an email to club staff, Best resigns from his role as president of sporting operations for the Spirit. The NWSL’s investigation found Best had been aware of the allegations against Burke.
Nov. 20, 2021
The Spirit win the NWSL Championship, the club’s first trophy since it started playing in 2013.
Dec. 14, 2021
After Baldwin had entered exclusive negotiations to sell the Spirit to Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly for $25 million, Kang informs the NWSL board of governors that she has increased her offer to buy Baldwin’s shares of the Spirit to $35 million.
“I believe this is the highest offer, and is well above market given past sale prices to say the least,” she tells the NWSL board. “It is based on my strong commitment to the team and the NWSL as a whole, and will be accompanied by additional investment into the club’s infrastructure.”
Jan. 11, 2022
Although the NWSL’s board of governors had backed Boehly to take over the Spirit, Kang sends an email to the board announcing that she has maneuvered her way to majority control of the Spirit without Baldwin’s cooperation.
“As some of you may know, there are many league-approved investors in the Spirit who hold promissory notes convertible at their election into an equity stake in the club,” she opens the email, before explaining she and ally investors had acquired and converted enough these notes to represent a majority stake in the club.
She offers to honor her $35 million valuation for Baldwin’s shares and adds that Baldwin cannot sell his shares to Boehly for $25 million: “Steve no longer has control of the team or the ability to dictate the terms of any sale.”
Jan. 25, 2022
Baldwin sends an email to fellow Spirit investors accusing Kang of “a coup attempt” for control of the club. Baldwin accuses Kang of having “secret meetings” with staffers and criticizes Kang’s relationship with the players and their families.
Feb. 8, 2022
After Baldwin agreed to sell his shares in the Spirit to Kang, the NWSL announces that the board has approved the sale.