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As games resume, NWSL players demand change following sexual misconduct allegations

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The National Women's Soccer League resumed play last night after a difficult week. Games were called off when the league was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct by one coach and instances of abuse by others. As the NWSL games start back up, players are demanding thorough investigations and meaningful change. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The NWSL players union released a statement yesterday that began with this - tonight, we reclaim our place on the field because we will not let our joy be taken from us, but this is not business as usual. That was evident outside Providence Park in downtown Portland, Ore., where the NWSL's Portland Thorns were hosting the Houston Dash, and where 32-year-old Thorns fan Sarah Gehrke stood pre-game holding a handwritten sign. On one side, it said Thorns players deserve better.

SARAH GEHRKE: The other side says accountability, not just apologies. Systemic abuse must stop.

GOLDMAN: Gehrke and other sign-holding fans knew the details of that abuse all too well. The report last week by the sports website The Athletic chronicled more than a decade of misconduct, including sexual coercion of a player by former NWSL coach Paul Riley. He denies most of the allegations. Many of them stemmed from his time coaching in Portland. The Thorns investigated in 2015 and dismissed Riley. He then got hired by another NWSL team, which fired him last week. Sarah Gehrke says she was disheartened by the revelations, especially in Portland, where the two-time league champion Thorns have set a standard for women's pro soccer.

GEHRKE: We have the most supporters. We have the best-funded club. We just have this amazing environment. And I thought we were better than most other clubs who sometimes have problems like this, and that's not true.

GOLDMAN: Gehrke's a season ticket holder who says, at this point, she won't renew. She headed into the stadium carrying two bottled waters. Protesters had called on fans not to support the team by avoiding the concession stands at the park.

(CHEERING)

GOLDMAN: Then, six minutes into the match, she was one of thousands who stood and cheered a dramatic moment of solidarity. Players suddenly stopped playing, and both teams came together in a circle at midfield, an action replicated at other NWSL stadiums last night. The six-minute mark symbolized the six years it took for players to have their allegations finally heard about Paul Riley.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

GOLDMAN: The moment of solidarity was bracketed by moments of soccer joy, as the more rabid Thorns fans provided the usual soundtrack of beating drums and constant chants. A well-played match ended with a 3-2 Houston win. But there was no soccer talk afterwards. The union said players would only answer media questions about abuse or systemic change in the NWSL. In Portland, reporters complied as Thorns defender Meghan Klingenberg described what she called a dark and heavy week for NWSL players.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MEGHAN KLINGENBERG: And the one thing that keeps coming back to me and to us over and over and over again is that, without any say in the league, without any power and without the financial resources to protect ourselves, then this will continue happening.

GOLDMAN: The union is determined to not let it continue. As games restarted yesterday, the players association delivered a list of demands to the NWSL, including expanded investigations to root out abuse and determine if teams in the league ignored reports of abuse. The league's executive committee contacted the union within hours of the demands. A union official said the work is getting underway, which Klingenberg said actually gives her some joy off the field.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

KLINGENBERG: That things are starting to change and that there's discussion.

GOLDMAN: And maybe, she said, we can see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.