You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Review: ESPN’s NWSL investigative documentary paints a powerful picture of NWSL abuse scandals—and how the players are reclaiming their power.

SB Nation 1/10/2022 Melina.Gaspar, WilderIsom, Alex E Barnes, Sam Svilar, and jeniferi
© Steve Dipaola/AP

ESPN’s upcoming E60 investigation, “Truth Be Told: The Fight For Women’s Professional Soccer” covers the abuse scandals and institutional failures that rocked the NWSL and the world, using testimony from current and former players to paint a full picture of the events of last year.

Stumptown Footy was provided with an advance rough-cut screener of the documentary to view and review. Below are the team’s thoughts and takeaways from the program.

If you were paying attention to the NWSL in the autumn of 2021, then Truth Be Told: The Fight For Women’s Professional Soccer won’t present any sort of groundbreaking new information. The 90-minute program outlines the timeline of events and recounts the allegations of abuse that affected players across the league, sent shockwaves around the landscape of American women’s soccer, and exposes the institutional failures that insulated those in positions of power from accountability.

What the documentary will do is present the above in a striking manner—one that reinforces how much the players were not protected, as told by the players themselves.

When the culture and system of abuse is heard from the mouths of the players who suffered through it, the real weight of the failure of years of inadequate protection and accountability from those in power in the NWSL is felt. Former Portland Thorns player Mana Shim, along with former Washington Spirit defender Kaiya McCullough take centerstage, and the emotion behind their words when recounting the abuse the suffered at the hands of former coaches Paul Riley and Richie Burke drives the emotional narrative home.

Their anger at those in power also drives home the impact of the inaction of parties like the NWSL, US Soccer, and individual clubs—such as the Washington Spirit and the Portland Thorns. The inadequate response from the NWSL into the abuse reported by Shim at the time—and as the program shares backed by Alex Morgan—is laid bare by the documentary. So too is the lack of action taken by former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who appears and answers questions about her actions (or lack thereof) in the documentary.

The documentary does an excellent job of highlighting the history of players having to accept and make do with the bear minimum just in the name of helping a league survive, and how that league in turn did not do enough to protect them.

And so, as the documentary culminates in, the players took their power back.

The program ends on a hopeful note, showcasing the signing of the CBA that the NWSL Player’s Association fought for and achieved this past year. It shows the growth of the league, focusing on the energy and excitement surrounding news teams like Angel City FC. And it strikes a tone of defiant resistance, lifting up the voices of players who refuse to accept mistreatment anymore.

It should also be noted that despite contacting them for interviews, Timbers/Thorns owner Merritt Paulson, then Thorns General Manager Gavin Wilkinson, and former head coach Paul Riley all declined to take part in ESPN’s investigative piece.

Below are the reflections from the Stumptown Footy contributors and writers and what they took away from a powerful 90 minutes.

Wilder:

I remember when the article came out in The Athletic. I remember Mana Shim’s words and all the NWSL games stopping during the sixth minute. As a woman who has been a fan of soccer for so much of my life, those moments will always stick with me.

While I thought I knew everything about this situation, as I had followed it closely when it was unfolding, this program uses interviews with players and coaches to further dive into the systemic failures of the NWSL at the time.

The piece took a more in-depth look at all the goings on in the NWSL around the time of Paul Riley’s abuse, but also the investigations that were triggered by the firing of Richie Burke, after recapping his actions and the toll it took on the players who played under him.

Overall, this documentary made sure the viewer knew just how little support the players were offered—even after the allegations were made public and after numerous players, like Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly, had tried to make their voices heard.

I think the NWSL is finally starting to head the right way with the long-awaited creation of National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, and—as the program highlights the expansion of the league into Los Angeles and San Diego—also show a new support for women’s soccer and women’s sports. This documentary, while a hard watch because the emotions are still so fresh, is a valuable reminder of the ways the NWSL has not fully protected the players and a reminder of how they decided to advocate for themselves when no one else would.

Alex:

After watching ESPN’s investigative piece Truth Be Told, my overriding feelings about how the NWSL and many of the league’s major decision-makers, handled abusive workplace cultures across the league were perfectly articulated by this quote by Mana Shim in the program: “It was another example of ‘This is how you’re going to react to something? It’s a flat-out lie!’ ”

E60’s latest installment is an eye-opening recounting of several major scandals in the NWSL that have been brought to light over the course of the last year. It highlights the power of prominent members of professional women’s soccer clubs being leveraged against a largely unprotected group of players.

Paul Riley’s alleged sexual misconduct and coercion of Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly while the head coach of the Portland Thorns, which was detailed by Meg Linehan in The Athletic last September, takes center stage, as does the toxic culture that was allowed to grow within the Washington Spirit organization under the watch of owner Steve Baldwin and guidance of head coach Richie Burke. But beyond that the piece looks at the conditions that allowed such horrible things to take place from a much wider lens, and the steps that NWSL and the NWSL Player’s association are taking to make the athletes more safe at work.

The program is poignant, painful, and important viewing that I implore everyone to watch at their own discretion. But as grim as the examination of the harsh reality so many women have to endure in the workplace is, the ending of the documentary offers a glimpse of hope that the NWSL is taking steps in the right direction—and that players are taking their power back not only for themselves but for the next generation as well.

As the credits roll, a girls’ youth soccer team shares what they love about the sport and what they hope to accomplish playing it, which truly drives home how important it is for meaningful change to be enacted in professional women’s soccer, ending the program on a hopeful and necessary note.

Melina:

A year has passed since September 30, when the biggest bomb of truth detonated in the NWSL, bringing with it numerous consequences for the league.

The E60 documentary recaps the horrific findings uncovered by investigative journalists from The Washington Post and The Athletic. It gives a voice to those who have been denied of it for years: the players.

The documentary outlines that from the beginning, these women were instilled with fear that their league would fold for a variety of reasons, and therefore how they had to sacrifice much of their power. It was heartbreaking to hear their stories, in particular after the findings about Paul Riley came to light. For many, this man was someone very powerful who could be the key to their success in their careers and the one who helped them achieve glory. The revealed truths about how he abused that power and control, as did Washington Spirit head coach Richie Burke, exposed the depths to which the players had to endure, just to play the game they love.

After listening to the protagonists in this documentary, it is very clear how soccer in the United States has functioned as net of lies. Former Washington Spirit owner Steve Baldwin, former NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, US Soccer and former US Soccer President Sunil Gulati and the Portland Thorns organization are all presented in an unflattering light, exposing the missteps that were taken that led to players being hurt.

How could the NWSL move forward? The documentary does a powerful job of showing how players across the country wanted to convey a message, and how they did so by suspending matches for a weekend and by standing arm in arm at minute six in the middle of the field after the league resumed games on October 6, 2021. It was a powerful moment in the documentary that marked the beginning of the healing process.

They wanted change and they got it. Maybe the most important one covered by the documentary was the signing of the CBA in 2022, an effort that took years in the making but was still a long overdue triumph.

The documentary is not easy to watch. It isn’t fun to rehash the facts that caused so much pain, as told by the victims themselves. It is a necessary watch nonetheless, as a reminder and call to never let something like this happen again in the NWSL.

Truth Be Told: The Fight For Women’s Professional Soccer, an ESPN E60 investigation, will debut on Tuesday, October 4, at 4 p.m. PT on ESPN, and be available for streaming afterward on ESPN+.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon