The National Women’s Soccer League and the U.S. Soccer Federation failed to take action when players reported cases of abuse, nor did they “institute basic measures to prevent and address it,” according to a more than 300-page independent report that provides a scathing review of the actions of both organizations.
On Monday, the USSF released the report prepared by Sally Q. Yates and King & Spalding LLP, who were retained by the organizations to look into reports of transgressions and player abuse in professional women’s soccer. Yates is a former U.S. deputy attorney general, and she began her work following the 2021 NWSL season, which saw half of the league’s coaches fired following players’ complaints.
NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird and general counsel Lisa Levine resigned on Oct. 1, 2021.
The report lays the blame for abuses in pro soccer at the feet of the NWSL and USSF, contending neither did enough to change a pattern of behavior that often begins in youth soccer.
“Our investigation has revealed a league in which abuse and misconduct — verbal and emotional abuse and sexual misconduct — had become systemic, spanning multiple teams, coaches and victims,” a section of the report’s executive summary reads. “Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, beginning in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players. The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not merely ‘tough’ coaching. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world. They include members of the U.S. Women’s National Team (‘National Team’), veterans of multiple World Cup and Olympic tournaments, and graduates of legendary NCAA Division I soccer programs.
“In well over 200 interviews, we heard report after report of relentless, degrading tirades; manipulation that was about power, not improving performance; and retaliation against those who attempted to come forward. Even more disturbing were the stories of sexual misconduct. Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse.
“Teams, the League and the Federation not only repeatedly failed to respond appropriately when confronted with player reports and evidence of abuse, they also failed to institute basic measures to prevent and address it, even as some leaders privately acknowledged the need for workplace protections. As a result, abusive coaches moved from team to team, laundered by press releases thanking them for their service, and positive references from teams that minimized or even concealed misconduct. Those at the NWSL and USSF in a position to correct the record stayed silent. And no one at the teams, the League or the Federation demanded better of coaches.”
USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone, in a news release, called the findings of the investigation “heartbreaking and deeply troubling.”
“The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace,” Cone said. “As the national governing body for our sport, U.S. Soccer is fully committed to doing everything in its power to ensure that all players — at all levels — have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and compete.”
The report details specifics, including an incident that occurred April 21, 2021, between the now-former head coach of Racing Louisville, Christy Holly, and player Erin Simon.
Simon said Holly asked her to attend a game film session with him, alone. As he started to play the film, he told her he was going to touch her every time the video showed her mess up a pass. The report said he did, pushing his hands up Simon’s shirt and down her pants. When the video ended, she left and then broke down crying when a teammate drove her home.
Later that year, on Sept. 30, The Athletic reported allegations that Paul Riley, the coach of the North Carolina Courage, had sexually coerced women and had made comments about the sexual orientation and weight of his players over a number of years. As far back as 2015, he had benched a player when he coached the Portland Thorns when she declined his sexual advances. The Courage fired him and the soccer federation suspended his coaching license, even though The Athletic said the NWSL was aware of complaints about his behavior with the Thorns and didn’t investigate a 2021 report against him.
Simon, 28, currently plays for Women’s Super League club Leicester City. She issued a statement to multiple outlets on Monday, heralding the report’s findings.
“This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve,” Simon said, in part. “It is my sincere hope that the pain we have all experienced and the change we have all brought about will be for the good of our league and this game we all deeply love.”
The report makes a number of recommendations, starting with greater transparency and doing away with nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements that don’t let one team share what it knows with another about abusive coaches who continue to be hired. Teams, in fact, should be required to share information as to why a coach no longer is with a team or is disciplined, according to the report.
In addition, the report urges the USSF to require that the NWSL “conduct timely investigations into allegations of abuse, impose appropriate discipline and immediately disseminate investigation outcomes.”
The USSF announced several programs it plans to implement immediately, including establishing the Office of Participant Safety to oversee policies and ways to report any allegations, as well as mandating “a uniform minimum standard for background checks” for all U.S. Soccer members, including those at the youth level.
“We are taking the immediate action that we can today, and will convene leaders in soccer at all levels across the country to collaborate on the recommendations so we can create meaningful, long-lasting change throughout the soccer ecosystem,” Cone said.
–Field Level Media