Steve Baldwin resigns as CEO of NWSL’s Washington Spirit

Steve Baldwin resigned as CEO and managing partner of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Washington Spirit on Tuesday in the wake of coach Richie Burke’s firing following a harassment investigation.

Baldwin’s resignation was the latest response to a string of scandals to hit the NWSL, the top women’s professional soccer league in the United States. Most recently, the league was rocked by sexual harassment and misconduct allegations involving longtime coach Paul Riley, a situation that prompted Commissioner Lisa Baird to resign Friday.

Baldwin said in a statement he decided to resign to avoid becoming a distraction. The team’s official supporters’ group had called for Baldwin to sell his interest in the team, saying it would curtail certain game-day traditions, including chants, until changes were made.

“This was an extremely difficult decision for me,” Baldwin said. “I have no doubt made some mistakes, but my effort and focus were always on building a professional experience for our players.”

Baldwin said team President Ben Olsen, the former coach of D.C. United who had no prior experience in women’s soccer, now has full authority over club operations. Baldwin did not say whether he would sell his controlling interest in the club.

Burke was fired last week after a Washington Post report detailed verbal and emotional abuse of players and the NWSL held a formal investigation. The Spirit were also sanctioned by the league.

A person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press that players on Sunday night signed a letter sent to the club and the NWSL demanding Baldwin divest in the team. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the letter was not made public.

The person also said the Spirit had lost two sponsors because of the controversy.

The Spirit players issued a public statement on Tuesday expressing dismay that Baldwin had not addressed their letter or his resignation with the team. The players also asked Baldwin to sell his controlling interest in the team to co-owner Y. Michele Kang.

“Right now, as we look across the soccer landscape, packed with painful stories of sexual abuse, emotional abuse and team mismanagement, we, along with our peers are suffering,” the players’ statement said. “We want to stand in solidarity with them rather than being dragged into what appears to be an ego-driven battle.”

The league had called off its games set for last weekend as players dealt with the allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct, including sexual coercion, leveled by two former players against Riley.

Riley was fired by the Courage in response, and U.S. Soccer suspended his license.

Riley’s former club, the Portland Thorns, did not renew his contract in 2015 following a team investigation after one of the players complained.

Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, who also owns Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers, released an open letter to fans Monday apologizing for the club’s lack of transparency in handling the matter, and said Riley was fired by the club.

“But we then made an opaque announcement about not renewing Riley’s contract as opposed to explicitly announcing his termination, guided by what we, at the time, thought was the right thing to do out of respect for player privacy,” Paulson wrote. “I deeply regret our role in what is clearly a systemic failure across women’s professional soccer.”

The Thorns and Timbers supporters’ groups issued a joint statement on Tuesday night saying they would no longer make purchases of concessions or merchandise at Providence Park in protest. The supporters asked that club GM Gavin Wilkinson be dismissed.

The NWSL opened an independent investigation into its handling of the accusations against Riley. U.S. Soccer and FIFA also are looking into the reports. Riley has not responded to a request for comment by The Associated Press but has denied the allegations.

In addition to Riley and Burke, 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 to violating the league’s antiharassment policy. She has denied the allegations.

Former players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim detailed Riley’s alleged harassment of them in a story published by The Athletic last week.

Farrelly and Shim, as well as U.S. national team star Alex Morgan, appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday to discuss the case.

“The damage to my self-confidence and how I saw myself, how I approach life, it seeps into every part of your livelihood, and there is a lot of loss that comes with that, and things I will not get back,” Farrelly said on the show.

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