An independent investigation into the scandals that took place in the National Women’s Soccer League last season found that there was systemic emotional abuse and sexual misconduct in the sport, affecting various teams, coaches and players, according to a report released on Monday.
“Abuse in the NWSL is rooted in a deeper culture in women’s soccer, starting in youth leagues, that normalizes verbally abusive coaching and blurs boundaries between coaches and players,” said former Acting United States Attorney Sally Q. Yates in her report on the investigation. .
US Soccer commissioned the investigation by Yates and law firm King & Spaulding after former NWSL players Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim made allegations of sexual harassment and assault dating back a decade involving former coach Paul Riley . The Athletic published their account in September 2021.
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Riley, who denied the allegations, was quickly fired as head coach of the North Carolina Courage, and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird resigned.
But it was clear that the problems were widespread. Five of the 10 head coaches in the NWSL last season were fired or let go amid allegations of misconduct.
“The verbal and emotional abuse players describe in the NWSL is not just ‘tough’ training. And the players affected are not shrinking violets. They are among the best athletes in the world,” wrote Yates.
Investigators interviewed more than 200 people. About two dozen entities and individuals provided documents. US Soccer also provided documents and the firm reviewed 89,000 deemed likely to be relevant.
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US Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone called the results “heartbreaking and very upsetting.” The report recounts an incident in 2013, when Parlow Cone was coach of the Portland Thorns, in which she herself made inappropriate comments from a team executive.
“I’ve been part of this game all my life, from youth all the way up to the professional level and the international level, so the women’s game is really important to me. And I know a lot of players in this report. . I’ve coached a lot of them,” Parlow Cone said. “It was a terrible thing that the players had to go through this.”
The report made many recommendations to prioritize player health and safety. Among them is the requirement that teams accurately disclose misconduct by coaches to the league and the soccer federation to ensure that coaches are not allowed to move between teams. It also calls for meaningful vetting of coaches and a timely investigation into allegations of abuse.
The NWSL said it was reviewing the report. The league and the NWSL Players Association are also investigating.
“We recognize the anxiety and emotional stress these pending investigations have created and relive the trauma for many – including players and staff. We continue to applaud their courage in coming forward with their stories to share and influence all the necessary changes. to continue to move our league,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said in a statement. “Building trust and confidence between the league, its players and other key stakeholders is a key focus for the NWSL, and we know that we must learn from and take responsibility for the painful lessons of the past in order to move the league forward into a better life. future.”
Parlow Cone would not speculate on the potential dominance of teams across the league.
“This is really systematic, so the league is going to do what they need to do. US Soccer, we are going to do what we need to do. But more broadly, we have to make sure that no team, no organization. , no one, no executive is allowed to put the players in the position they were in,” Parlow Cone said.
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The investigation focused on three former coaches: Riley, Christy Holly of Racing Louisville and Rory Dames of the Chicago Red Stars. The Associated Press reached out to the Thorns, Racing Louisville and the Red Stars for comment but did not immediately receive responses.
The report details an April 2021 encounter between Holly and a player, Erin Simon, who now plays in Europe. Holly invited her to watch game film with him and allegedly told her he was going to touch her for every pass she messed up. Simon told investigators Holly “pushed his hands down his pants and up his shirt.”
Simon, who is now with Leicester City, said too many athletes are suffering in silence because they are afraid they won’t be heard.
“I know how I felt,” said the 28-year-old in a statement. “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 experiences what I did. This report allows that our voices will finally be heard and it’s the first step to achieving the respectful workplace we all deserve.”
Holly was terminated for cause but Racing Louisville declined to state the reason publicly. Yates’ report noted that Racing did not provide investigators with details about Holly’s employment, citing mutual nondisclosure and nondiscrimination clauses.
Farrelly said the harassment she experienced began in 2011 when she was a player with the Women’s Professional Soccer League in Philadelphia. Riley was her coach.
She told The Athletic that Riley’s abuse continued when she was with the Portland Thorns in 2014 and 2015. Shim, a former Thorns player, also said she experienced harassment. Neither of them are playing in the NWSL now.
The Thorns said they investigated Riley in 2015 while he was with the team and reported the findings to the league. They didn’t renew his contract but they didn’t make the reasons public.
The report said certain information was not available to the Thorns and tried to prevent investigators from using the team’s 2015 report.
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“The Portland Thorns interfered with our access to relevant witnesses and raised specific legal arguments in an attempt to block our use of relevant documents,” Yates wrote.
Riley went on to coach the Western New York Flash, who later moved to North Carolina and were renamed.
When the scandal broke last year, former Thorns forward Alex Morgan posted on social media: “The league has been made aware of these allegations multiple times and has repeatedly refused to investigate the allegations. The league needs to take responsibility a process that she failed to protect her own. players from this abuse.”
Morgan added that Shim and Farrelly asked the NWSL earlier last year for a new investigation into Riley’s behavior but were rebuffed.
The United States Women’s National Team Players Association released a statement saying: “All Players and employees deserve to work in an environment free from discrimination, harassment, and abusive behavior. The USWNTPA applauds the courage of survivors, current Players, and ex-Participants looking forward to speaking out against abusive practices that have become far too common in the NSWL and women’s soccer in general At the same time, the USWNTPA is disappointed that some NWSL clubs and staff the USSF blocked the investigation; those who have not done so should cooperate fully with the ongoing NWSL/NWSLPA investigation immediately.”
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US Soccer said its board of directors and leadership team would begin implementing the report’s recommendations immediately.
“USA Soccer and the entire soccer community must do better, and I believe we can use this report and its recommendations as a critical turning point for all organizations charged with ensuring player safety,” said Parlow Cone. “We have significant work to do, and we are committed to doing that work and leading change throughout the entire soccer community.”