Former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough has told CNN that the abuse she faced at the hands of former coach Richie Burke left her “dreading having to go on the field” and “hoping I would get hurt at practice.”
Speaking to CNN’s Bianna Golodryga on the Amanpour program on Tuesday, McCullough said that Burke had created a “toxic” environment.
“He would target people at practice, and no matter what they did, good or bad, it just wasn’t enough,” she said. “It really was just this environment that was so toxic and it was fearing that you were going to be next and knowing that nobody was going to stand up for you because they were also scared that it was going to be them next.”
McCullough, 23, left Washington Spirit in 2020, citing what she described as verbal and emotional abuse by former Washington Spirit head coach Burke. Burke was fired by the National Women’s Soccer League in September following an investigation into allegations of harassment and abuse. He has denied all allegations against him.
Fear of retribution allowed for a sustained period of abuse while Burke was in charge, McCullough said. “You have these people who are abusers and who are bullies and they have unilateral control over other people’s livelihoods – your contract, that’s your source of income, that’s your place of living. They have the ability to uproot your life and trade your life away.”
Burke’s dismissal has been followed in recent weeks by widespread allegations of sexual and emotional abuse across multiple global leagues in women’s football. McCullough, who at 23 has retired from the sport, cited the pervasive abuse in the sport as a reason as to why she has quit football altogether.
“I didn’t feel like I could go somewhere where I would be safe. I had a feeling that it was more common than people were letting on, and it was just a gut instinct that anywhere I went, I might not be safe. So I just didn’t want to put myself through that again,” she said.
She called for more players to come forward and for greater accountability across football. “It does take the big players to come out and support and to call things out for things to get done because they wield more power and when you’re talking about these larger power structures, these intricate systems of power, it often takes people who wield some of that power to be able to impact what’s happening.”
Joyce Cook, FIFA’s Chief Education and Social Responsibility Officer, told CNN last week that the sport’s governing body is taking the issue seriously and encouraged victims to come forward.
“We are incredibly serious about eradicating abuse from sport, from football,” Cook said. “Part of ensuring that we have a safe sport means that we also have to provide remedy for those that have been abused, that are being abused and to make sure that any perpetrators are not only not welcome but banned from sport.”
Reacting to those comments, McCullough said that she “would love to believe that people will follow through with their words, with robust action, but other parts of me have seen how the systems have failed me. So I’m optimistic, I’m hopeful, but still hesitant.”
“It really shouldn’t be on players to have to give up their career or to have to relive trauma in order to fix some of these more systemic issues,” she said.