USSF report finds systemic abuse in NWSL

    Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.

The independent investigation into player abuse in women’s professional soccer found a long list of failures by National Women’s Soccer League coaches and executives, as well as the United States Soccer Federation itself.

“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,” the report read. “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 summary report, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, also details recommendations for the USSF to implement going forward. The investigation was conducted by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, on behalf of the USSF.

The report includes a previously undisclosed revelation as to the manner of Racing Louisville’s firing of Christy Holly as manager back in August 2021. The report details how Holly called a player, identified as Erin Simon, in for a film session, stating he would touch her “for every pass” she made a mistake on. (ESPN’s policy is to not publicly identify victims of abuse, but Simon, through a spokesperson, agreed to be identified.)

Holly then proceeded to put his hand “down her pants and up her shirt.” Simon would try to “tightly cross her legs and push him away, laughing to avoid angering him,” adds the report, stating that when her teammate picked her up to drive home, Simon broke down crying.

Holly was later fired for cause, though the reason for his firing wasn’t publicly disclosed.

“There are too many athletes who still suffer in silence because they are scared that no one will help them or hear them,” Simon said in a statement through a spokesperson. “I know because that is how I felt. Through many difficult days, my faith alone sustained me and kept me going. I want to do everything in my power to ensure that no other player must experience what I did. This report allows our voices to finally be heard and is the first step toward achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve. 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.”

In a statement, USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone said: “This investigation’s findings are heartbreaking and deeply troubling. The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any playing field, in any training facility or workplace. 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. 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.”

The investigation was initiated following a report in The Athletic in 2021 that detailed allegations of sexual harassment and coercion from 2015 made against former Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley. Former Thorns players Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly alleged that Riley invited both players back to his apartment and asked them to kiss each other in exchange for getting the team out of a conditioning drill the next day, as well as drinking with players and sending lewd photos to Shim.

The Thorns fired Riley following an investigation, though they failed to follow up on additional allegations from Farrelly that included having a sexual relationship with him. The allegations against Riley were by no means unique.

The report stated: “Players described a pattern of sexually charged comments, unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching, and coercive sexual intercourse.”

The abuse by coaches wasn’t always sexual in nature, the report found, with former Chicago Red Stars manager Rory Dames among those found to have verbally and emotionally abused players.

“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,” the report read.

Among the report’s findings was that throughout the league’s existence, teams, the NWSL and USSF failed to put in place basic measures for player safety. The report also detailed how abuse in the NWSL was systemic and that NWSL teams, the league and the federation failed to adequately address reports and evidence of misconduct.

“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,” the report read. “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.”

Because the teams, the NWSL and USSF failed to identify and inform others of coaches’ misconduct, the abuse was allowed to continue. This was due in part to a culture of abuse, silence and fear of retaliation due to a lack of job security.

The report also provided more details as to how Riley was allowed to continue coaching in the NWSL, despite being fired for cause by the Thorns following the aforementioned abuse allegations. Former NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush, in an email to then USSF president Sunil Gulati, USSF CEO Dan Flynn and USSF general counsel Lisa Levine, conveyed his understanding that Thorns president of soccer Gavin Wilkinson told the Western New York Flash that Riley was “put in a bad position by the player,” and that Wilkinson would “hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.”

ESPN previously reported that Wilkinson had given the Flash a positive job referral for Riley. He was hired by the club in early 2016. Although Plush, Gulati, Flynn and Levine all had received Shim’s detailed complaint — and Plush and Levine received a 2015 Thorns report — none appeared to provide the Flash with additional information.

ESPN also reported that later, when Riley was in contention for the managerial position for the U.S. women’s national team, Thorns owner Merritt Paulson told North Carolina Courage counterpart Steve Malik it would be “a good idea” for Riley to withdraw. The Yates report details how following “at least fourteen conversations among eleven people at the Federation, the League, the Portland Thorns, and the NC Courage, Riley publicly withdrew himself from consideration.” But during those conversations, USSF chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke never conveyed a report that Riley had a “relationship with a Portland player to the League, others at the Federation, or the Courage.

The report found that three organizations — the Chicago Red Stars, the Portland Thorns and Racing Louisville — didn’t fully cooperate with the Yates investigation, despite public statements to the contrary.

“The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specious legal arguments in an attempt to impede our use of relevant documents,” the report read. “Racing Louisville FC refused to produce documents concerning Christy Holly and would not permit witnesses (even former employees) to answer relevant questions regarding Holly’s tenure, citing non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements it signed with Holly. The Chicago Red Stars unnecessarily delayed the production of relevant documents over the course of nearly nine months.”

The report added that the Thorns tried to claim that certain information, including the Thorns’ 2015 report of their investigation into Riley, was protected by attorney-client privilege or common interest privilege “despite evidence to the contrary.” The Thorns only relented after a period of months after the initial requests by investigators.

“In general, teams, the NWSL, and USSF appear to have prioritized concerns of legal exposure to litigation by coaches — and the risk of drawing negative attention to the team or League — over player safety and well-being,” the report stated.

That wasn’t the only failing of the NWSL and the USSF.

Even in cases where the federation and/or the league was aware of the misconduct, the report adds, it typically did nothing to correct the team’s inaccurate description or minimized the coach’s misconduct. For example, the Portland Thorns, the Federation, and the League failed to ensure Riley’s conduct was accurately disclosed to Western New York Flash or North Carolina Courage.

Despite such interference, the investigation conducted over 200 interviews, including over 100 past and present NWSL players.

In terms of recommendations, the report called for greater transparency so abusive coaches can’t move from team to team. This includes eliminating the use of nondisclosure and non-disparagement agreements that serve to shield information about abusive coaches.

In terms of accountability for the behavior, the report acknowledged that this responsibility lies mostly with the NWSL and its teams. The USSF is not empowered to sanction executives and team owners. But the report noted that, “No organization took ownership over player safety,” and that the USSF could put additional teeth into its licensing requirements, requiring coaches to get annual recertification. The report also recommended suspending the licenses of coaches found to have engaged in misconduct, which in the case of Riley, the USSF had already done.

The report also recommended that the USSF should require the NWSL to “conduct timely investigations into allegations of abuse, impose appropriate discipline, and immediately disseminate investigation outcomes.”

Clear rules were needed regarding what constituted prohibited behavior to whom the policies applied, concluded the report, while noting that the current prohibited conduct policy, which sets forth USSF’s anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy, does not apply to professional leagues or non-national team players.

To better establish a single point of contact for player safety, the report recommended that the USSF, the NWSL and teams should each designate an individual within their organizations who is responsible for player safety. It recommended that the USSF should also require the NWSL to solicit feedback from players via surveys and provide the results to the USSF.

In terms of discipline, the report recommended that while none of the coaches mentioned are still coaching in the league, some executives and owners still are. “The NWSL should determine whether discipline is warranted in light of these findings and the findings of the NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation,” the report read.

The investigation was initiated on Oct. 2, 2021, a day after The Athletic report was published. The USSF retained Yates and the law firm King & Spaulding to conduct an investigation. A parallel investigation is also being conducted by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association. A source with knowledge of the Yates investigation acknowledged that while the two investigations did share information on occasion, they were done separately.

In a news release in conjunction with the findings of the Yates investigation, the USSF announced it was already instituting some changes as it relates to player safety. These include: establishing a new office of participant safety to oversee the USSF’s conduct policies and reporting mechanisms; publishing soccer records from SafeSport’s centralized disciplinary database to publicly identify individuals in the sport who have been disciplined, suspended or banned; and mandating a uniform minimum standard for background checks for all U.S. Soccer members at every level of the game, including youth soccer, to comport with United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee standards.

In addition to those most steps, the USSF has created a new committee of the board of directors to address the report’s recommendations going forward. The committee will be chaired by former U.S. women’s national team player Danielle Slaton alongside U.S. Club Soccer CEO Mike Cullina, the vice chair.

“Truth Be Told – The Fight For Women’s Professional Soccer” Debuts Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, ESPN+

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