Ex-NWSL commish Baird defends time in office

    Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.

Former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said that during her time running the league, she acted appropriately and didn’t ignore allegations of misconduct made against former Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage manager Paul Riley.

Baird made her first public comments since resigning from her position last year, saying: “If something was brought to me, I followed up on it,” in an interview with ESPN reporter Lisa Salters, as part of the E60 documentary “Truth Be Told: The Fight For Women’s Professional Soccer,” which debuts at 7 p.m. ET on Oct. 4 on ESPN2.

Asked if she would have done anything differently, Baird said: “Well, you know, I could second guess myself a lot. I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this. I’m sure there are things that I could do differently. I think, right now, I made the best decisions I could with the information I had at the time.”

Several of the league’s players contradict Baird’s assessment about her handling of the allegations. Last September, The Athletic reported that ex-Thorns players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly brought accusations of sexual harassment and coercion against Riley to the team. The Thorns fired Riley in 2015 following an investigation, though the Thorns and the NWSL — then under commissioner Jeff Plush — did not publicly disclose the nature of his firing, and allowed him to be hired by another NWSL team shortly thereafter.

Shortly after publication of the report, Baird issued a statement saying she was “shocked and disgusted to read the new allegations reported in The Athletic.” But San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan, who was with the Thorns when some of the alleged incidents occurred in 2015, tweeted screenshots of an email exchange between Baird and Farrelly. Farrelly had reached out to Baird in April of 2021, asking that the investigation into Riley be reopened. This was because the Thorns never followed up on allegations Farrelly shared during the club’s 2015 investigation into Riley, and he had continued to coach in the league with the North Carolina Courage.

Baird declined to open the investigation, which took place under Plush, telling Farrelly that “the initial complaint was investigated to conclusion.” Baird closed her response: “Thank you again for your email and I wish you the best.”

On Monday, an independent investigation commissioned by U.S. Soccer cast further doubt about Baird’s response to player complaints. The report, conducted by former U.S. attorney general Sally Yates, said Baird was warned about Riley repeatedly, but up until The Athletic’s report last year, she was eager to keep him from coaching elsewhere.

“In the spring of 2021, the NWSL received a series of four complaints about Riley in quick succession,” the report said. “The League largely ignored the complaints, and instead, weeks before the publication of The Athletic article, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird was actively trying to keep Riley from resigning over his anger about the post-season schedule.”

Baird had taken on the role of NWSL commissioner starting in February of 2020. Plush, the NWSL’s commissioner when the allegations against Riley were first made in 2015, has not commented publicly about the allegations. Sunil Gulati was president of the U.S. Soccer Federation in 2015, and at the time, the USSF was managing the NWSL. He has declined to comment about NWSL abuse allegations, citing the USSF’s pending investigation, which encompasses alleged abuse throughout the league. Gulati stepped down from the USSF president role in 2017, and Plush left the NWSL in 2017 and is now the CEO of USA Curling.

In her interview with Salters, Baird insisted that prior to the publication of The Athletic’s article, she was not aware of the specific allegations made against Riley.

“That was the first time that I heard of an accusation of sexual abuse,” she said.

But Baird refusing to take Farrelly up on her offer to look into her allegations against Riley is what Morgan remembers.

“I wanted so deeply for Lisa Baird to just stand up and say, ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t do enough,’ but she didn’t,” Morgan says in the E60 documentary. “She said she was shocked and disgusted, and that was surprising because that was a lie.”

On Oct. 1, 2021, the NWSL postponed all its games for the following weekend. In a statement, Baird said: “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 resigned. When asked by Salters why she did so, Baird said that events “unfolded very quickly” from when the article was first published, and she was in a number of conversations over that period with NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke, as well as some players.

“By that Friday, I had come to a very painful and very personal conclusion based on the reaction and based on social media, which was very painful,” Baird said. “And it was that I felt like the thing that I could do was accept institutional responsibility. That would help the league weather the crisis. Listening to the players in my conversations that day, their pain really impacted me and influenced my decision, just hearing that.”

When asked why she said in her statement that she “took responsibility,” Baird said: “I can’t tell you. I don’t even remember clearly what happened in those 24 hours. You know, it’s a hard time to think. I mean, I don’t know that was written, right? It was written. It’s really hard for me to have clarity.

“I mean, my daughter got a threatening DM, and I was just trying to sort it all through at that time. So I think that statement came out around that time. I can’t clearly remember it. But you know, sometimes as a commissioner, and that is part of the role of the commissioner, is you take institutional responsibility. You just do.”

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