Football: Washington Spirit chief quits as sex misconduct scandal rumbles on

Washington Spirit players celebrate after scoring a goal against Kansas City during a NWSL football match at Segra Field on Sept 26, 2021.
Washington Spirit players celebrate after scoring a goal against Kansas City during a NWSL football match at Segra Field on Sept 26, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - The chief executive of the Washington Spirit stepped down Tuesday (Oct 5), as the fallout from the sexual misconduct and workplace culture scandal roiling the top US professional women's football league continued.

Steve Baldwin, who had been sharply criticized for his handling of allegations against former Spirit coach Richie Burke - who was fired last month - said he was stepping down to "remove distractions" from the team.

"In recent days I have spent a lot of time thinking about the future of the Washington Spirit and the vision I laid out just three years ago," Baldwin said.

"I have also listened - to team leadership and staff, investors, fans and players - to concerns about the Spirit's workplace culture and our prior coach's conduct.

"While there is a range of opinions on how we got here, and how to move forward, everyone - none more so than me - is committed to improving the club's culture, removing distractions and returning the focus to the players and the pursuit of a championship," he said.

"With that goal in mind, and at the recent request of our players, I have decided to resign as CEO and managing partner of the Washington Spirit, effective immediately."

Burke was "terminated for cause" last week after an investigation by the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL), following allegations of harassment and a toxic work culture.

He was barred from coaching in the NWSL after a probe found he had harassed and verbally abused players.

The NWSL criticized the Spirit's handling of the allegations against Burke, saying the team had "failed to act in the best interests of the league."

Even after Burke had been suspended, Baldwin was accused of presiding over a workplace culture that left women feeling sidelined, described by one former employee as an "old boys club".

In his statement on Tuesday, Baldwin acknowledged he had "made some mistakes" but insisted he "cared deeply for the players, staff and fan base."

"I hope that stepping back removes me as a distraction and allows the club to thrive," he said.

Baldwin's resignation followed a tumultuous week for the NWSL, which saw its commissioner Lisa Baird resign on Friday over her handling of sexual misconduct allegations.

The league called off all its fixtures across the United States last weekend as the crisis escalated.

Baird's resignation followed the dismissal of North Carolina coach Paul Riley last Thursday for what the team called "very serious allegations of misconduct".

Earlier on Tuesday, US women's international star Alex Morgan said there had been a "systemic failure" to tackle sexual misconduct and harassment claims, noting the difficulties faced by former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim in attempting to make formal complaints against Riley.

"I tried to be as good a friend and teammate as possible to Mana in helping her file a complaint, when at the time there was no anti-harassment policy in place, there was no league HR, there was no anonymous hotline, there was no way to report," Morgan told NBC's Today show.

"We've now started to put these things in place, by demand of players, not by the league being proactive.

Riley's case also prompted Football Australia to say they will investigate allegations of abuse in the women's game after recently retired international striker Lisa de Vanna said she had been the victim of sexual assault, harassment and bullying during her career.

De Vanna made her initial allegations in response to a Tweet by Megan Rapinoe when the United States international commented on the allegations of misconduct against Riley.

The 36-year-old, who played 150 times for Australia over two decades, replied that she had witnessed women in the game abusing younger female players, and organisations protecting the abusers.

"There needs to be consequences. There needs to be accountability," she expanded in an interview with News Ltd media.

"I have seen cultural problems at all levels throughout the years - from men and women - and girls coming through need to be brave, and also the girls that have been through this also need to be brave and know they are not alone.

"Have I been sexually harassed? Yes. Have I been bullied? Yes. Ostracised? Yes. Have I seen things that have made me uncomfortable? Yes."

Football Australia said they had met with de Vanna to discuss her "grievances" but that some of the specific allegations she made in the media had not been raised at the time.

"In the event that Lisa chooses to lodge a formal complaint through the appropriate channels we will in turn be in a position to investigate and, if appropriate, act accordingly," the governing body said in a statement.

Another recently retired Australian professional, Rhali Dobson, told News Ltd that she had been the target of predatory behaviour from senior women players.