By Homero De la Fuente, Wayne Sterling and Eric Levenson, CNN
As the National Women’s Soccer League returned to the pitch on Wednesday night for the first time since allegations of sexual misconduct rattled the league, sparked major resignations and led to the cancellation of last weekend’s matches, players stopped during the sixth minute and joined together at the center circle in solidarity.
During the first two of three matches scheduled Wednesday, players on NJ/NY Gotham FC and the Washington Spirit gathered with their arms interlocked for a minute before play resumed, as did players during the match between North Carolina Courage and Racing Louisville FC.
Fans at both matches gave a standing ovation and cheered as the players joined together.
The protest will occur during all three matches, the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association announced Wednesday. The third match of the evening features the Portland Thorns FC and Houston Dash in Portland, Oregon.
The controversy stems from an investigative report by The Athletic last week in which players on the record alleged that North Carolina Courage head coach Paul Riley used his influence and power to sexually harass players and, in one incident, coerce a player into having sex with him.
In the report, former player Sinead Farrelly described how a married Riley coerced her into his hotel room to have sex. Another reported incident describes Riley coercing Farrelly and teammate Mana Shim back to his apartment and pressuring the two to kiss each other.
The Athletic asked Riley to comment on his alleged misconduct, to which he replied the former players’ claims were “completely untrue.” According to The Athletic, Riley told them in an email: “I have never had sex with, or made sexual advances towards these players.”
CNN has not been able to reach Riley for comment.
The fallout from the report has been significant. The Courage fired Riley. The commissioner of the NWSL, Lisa Baird, resigned, and the 10-team league called off all matches scheduled for last weekend as a result of the allegations against Riley, who has coached three franchises over eight seasons.
Steve Baldwin, the CEO and managing partner of the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, also resigned on Tuesday. His statement on Twitter referenced a recent request by the players as part of the reason for stepping down.
Shortly before the Thorns match on Wednesday, Portland general manager and president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson was placed on administrative leave “pending the results of the outside independent investigation, which is ongoing,” the team announced. CNN is attempting to reach out to Wilkinson for further comment.
The NWSL Players Association said in a statement that scheduled matches would resume Wednesday, adding the hashtag #NoMoreSilence.
“We have taken the weekend’s pause to evaluate,” the NWSLPA said in a statement. “We acknowledge that we will not process the pain of the last several days in one weekend or one week. In the midst of statements that leagues and clubs are quick to release, we have been listening to ourselves, and to one another.”
Courage owner apologizes
In a letter Wednesday, North Carolina Courage owner and chairman Steve Malik apologized and vowed to create a safe environment for players.
“Let me begin by saying that I am deeply sorry for our part in the failure to create an environment where players feel safe and comfortable coming forward,” Malik said in the letter.
He said the club was made aware of an investigation into Riley’s behavior in 2015, but that they were “assured that he was in good standing.” He did not disclose who assured him of that.
Malik stated that the team had no prior knowledge of the “horrific” allegations against Riley until last week’s report. Malik said that the team did their own due diligence on the former coach after buying the Riley-led franchise in 2017, then known as the Western New York Flash.
“As soon as we were aware of the serious allegations against Mr. Riley, we immediately terminated his employment. There is no place for that behavior and abuse in our sport and society. Firing Mr. Riley was the first step, and we continue to reflect on how we could have been better,” Malik said.
Farrelly, speaking to NBC on Tuesday alongside Shim and US Women’s National team striker Alex Morgan, said the damage Riley has caused “seeps into every part” of their livelihoods.
“I think it’s just really important and why we wanted to share our story and share in so much detail the damage that was done to our careers, but who we are as people,” Farrelly, who played for Riley on three different teams, explained.
“The damage to my self-confidence and how I saw myself and how I approach life, it seeps into every part of your livelihood,” Farrelly told NBC.
“There is a lot of loss that comes with that and things I will not get back and I think when we can tap into the emotional impact of just showing up to try and be your authentic self, it really can hit home for alot of people because it’s bigger than the sport. This is about safety in our own lives and our bodies and the players deserve that. We all deserve that. And that’s something that we will fight for.”
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CNN’s David Close, Jacob Lev and Ben Morse contributed to this report.