Report says sexual misconduct and abuse is “systemic” in the NWSL.

Portland Timbers fans lit red smoke in support of female soccer players during the November 2021 Major League Soccer playoffs.

Portland Timbers fans lit red smoke in support of female soccer players during the November 2021 Major League Soccer playoffs.

The US Soccer Association and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) have failed to implement adequate player protection measures since the league’s inception, which a says has led to a nearly uncontrolled pattern of systematic sexual and verbal abuse new independent investigation published Monday.

The investigation, led by former attorney general Sally Yates, was commissioned by US Soccer last year reporting out the athletewhich detailed how the Portland Thorns failed to protect their players from it sexual advances and coercion by former coach Paul Riley. Meleana Shim, a Thorns player who sexually harassed Riley for months and later benched him after repeatedly turning him down, filed a complaint in 2015 about Riley’s behavior. An internal investigation led to Riley’s “departure” from the Thorns. Despite the NWSL’s reported knowledge of the true nature of Riley’s departure, he was allowed to coach another NWSL team, the North Carolina Courage, until his release in 2021. New information gathered by Yates and her team sets out what this sequence of events was like. not just condoned by the league, but institutionalized, often as an “open secret”. By the end of the 2021 season, half of NWSL teams had parted ways with their head coaches following player complaints, according to the report.

In 319 pages, Yates presents damning evidence of an unsafe environment for players across the league, in which staff from both teams and the league “repeatedly ignored player allegations of abuse and inappropriate behavior by coaches for many years.” The Yates report came after conducting over 200 interviews with players, coaches, owners and front office staff, including over 100 former NWSL and US women’s national team players, and reviewing approximately 89,000 documents provided by US Soccer concluded that verbal and emotional abuse of players was rampant in the NWSL and that basic reporting structures were broken. After falling victim to “relentless, degrading tirades” or sexual manipulation that took advantage of the sport’s built-in power structures, players often faced retaliation for speaking out.

While the entire report is harrowing and difficult to read, a few new details stand out as particularly egregious. The report said that in April 2021, former Racing Louisville head coach Christy Holly asked that a player, Erin Simon, attend a feature film session alone with him. “For every pass [she] sucks,” Simon recalled, touching her for punishment, forcing his hands down her pants and up her shirt. On other occasions, Holly is said to have shown Simon pornography and masturbated in front of her. She later sent Simon sexually explicit photos and asked them to send back photos of themselves.

But Simon should never have been alone with a man the NWSL seemed to know was a serial killer. According to the Yates report, had the NWSL’s reporting structures worked properly, Holly would have been fired when reports surfaced of abuse and a relationship with a player at his former team, Sky Blue FC of New York, New Jersey. Instead, in August 2017 he was simply asked to leave Sky Blue and take up another position as head coach. At the time, Holly simply said he “made the decision to step down,” and Sky Blue president and general manager Tony Novo publicly thanked Holly in a team statement, without mentioning his offenses.

The report later describes another startling pattern, this time regarding Riley’s coaching tenure with the Thorns and the Courage. At least one complaint about Riley’s behavior was filed with the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) or NWSL each year from 2015 through 2021, including an anonymous player survey following the 2014 season that described Riley as “offensive, sexist and destructive.” According to the Yates report, the results of that survey were shared with then-Commissioner Cheryl Bailey, then-USSF President Sunil Gulati, and then-USSF CEO Dan Flynn. Riley was allowed to train for another six years and continue his harassment of female players after the league’s top brass learned of his behavior.

As if the allegations themselves weren’t bad enough, Yates makes it clear that several teams didn’t fully cooperate with the investigation. The Thorns reportedly attempted to withhold the 2015 report on Riley from Yates, claiming it was “protected by attorney-client privilege and the general interest,” even though the USSF already had a copy on hand. Additionally, the Portland Thorns “interfered” with access to witnesses, Racing Louisville refused to produce documents, and the Chicago Red Stars “unnecessarily delayed” the delivery of key documents as required by the investigation.

“The findings of this investigation are heartbreaking and deeply disturbing,” said USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone in an opinion. “The abuse described is inexcusable and has no place on any pitch, training facility or workplace. As the national governing body for our sport, US Soccer is fully committed to doing everything we can to ensure all players – at all levels – have a safe and respectful place to learn, grow and flourish can measure.”

The report makes recommendations to both the governing body and the league, but Yates noted that many of the problems the league faces begin in youth soccer and that the history of systemic abuse in the NWSL is inseparable from the history of US women’s soccer itself is connected. By allowing coaches known to have physically or mentally harmed players across the league to move about without consequences, the NWSL knowingly exposed dozens of other athletes – if not more – to men who had no interest in doing so to protect them. Both the league and the USSF placed more emphasis on protecting the reputations and job security of those who abused their power than on protecting the players they abused. No story is more American than this. Report says sexual misconduct and abuse is “systemic” in the NWSL.

Adam Bradshaw

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